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Monday, Mar 16, 2020, 11:27 am

The Culinary Union Faces Its Biggest Test as Coronavirus Shuts Down Vegas

BY Hamilton Nolan

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The High Roller at The Linq Promenade and hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, including The Venetian Las Vegas, the Trump International Hotel & Tower Las Vegas and The Palazzo Las Vegas, are shown as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 15, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)  

There may be no more vivid illustration of the economic havoc being wreaked by the coronavirus than the rapid shutdown of the Las Vegas strip. What was a booming tourist destination a week ago is now in the process of becoming a locked down row of empty buildings. For the Culinary Union, whose 60,000 members comprise virtually the entire Las Vegas casino industry, this is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

In just the past two days, MGM Resorts, which operates 10 major properties on the Strip, has announced that it is closing all of them indefinitely; Wynn Resorts has announced it is closing its two properties for at least two weeks; and Caesar’s, another major operator, has begun layoffs. With travel grinding to a halt and America hunkering indoors, it is likely only a short matter of time before every casino and resort in Las Vegas is empty, a situation even worse than the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

The Culinary Union, which just weeks ago was being feted and flattered by Democratic presidential candidates in town for the Nevada caucus, will now be tested by the rapid furloughs and layoffs of what will amount to a large portion of their working membership.

In an update sent to members late last week, the union said that it was holding “emergency negotiation sessions” with all of its employers, seeking five paid sick leave days, paid leave for those in quarantine, enhanced cleaning standards, and leaves of absences on request. Some of those asks will become moot as properties shut down. Culinary Union spokesperson Bethany Khan told In These Times that the union has negotiated up to six months of paid healthcare benefits for workers who are laid off.

Yesterday, the union told members that the board of the Culinary Health Fund, the union-run healthcare provider for more than 125,000 members and their families, will be extending coverage for those who are laid off or have had their hours cut, and will not impose copays. The Health Fund also told members that all testing for the coronavirus will be covered at no cost (although the Fund’s website now prominently notes that “The Culinary Health Center currently does not have the ability to test for the Coronavirus,” and that the emergency room is the only place people can currently be tested.)

Unlike former crises like 9/11 and the Great Recession, the coronavirus shutdowns are not only economic, but also tinged with the further uncertainty of an unfolding pandemic. That means that the shutdowns and layoffs in Las Vegas could persist even after the virus itself comes under control, due to the economic fallout, or even after economic recovery measures have been taken, if the virus itself is still raging. There is no way to say when business might return.

The Culinary Union became a union role model by building wall-to-wall power in a one-industry town. Now that that industry is facing what could become a total temporary collapse, the union’s ability to function as a social safety net will be tested like never before. Last month, every Democratic politician in America was competing to prove that they supported the union and its members more than anyone else. Now, they will get a chance to prove it.

Even Culinary Union members who have not been laid off are facing their own hazards. One union worker at a property on the Las Vegas strip that is still open told In These Times that they are now caught between the fear of losing a job, or losing their health. “It’s a petri dish.”


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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

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