US casino workers: Pay us through the shutdown

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Casino workers across the country are calling on the gambling industry to pay its laid-off workers their full salary and benefits for the duration of coronavirus shutdowns.

In an online conference Thursday, casino workers and their union leaders from Las Vegas, Atlantic City, New Orleans and Mississippi called on the industry to “step up and do the right thing.”

Many laid-off workers have not yet been able to file for unemployment, and have no income, even as bills, rent and mortgage payments come due, they said.

Donald “D” Taylor, international president of the Unite Here union, representing 300,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada, said the casino industry is “just sitting on a pile of money, just watching the chaos.”

“They should step up and pay people throughout this closing,” he said.

Virtually every casino in the country is closed as part of the effort to slow the spread of the virus by eliminating large gatherings that attract people from far-flung places. Many casinos gave their workers two weeks’ salary upon closing and a few gave four. Others gave nothing.

Debra Jeffries, who has worked 40 years as a cocktail server in Las Vegas casinos, said workers are quickly sinking financially.

“We have to feed our families,” she said. “We have bills and mortgages mounting up every day that will have to be paid.”

Bill Miller, president and CEO of the America Gaming Association, the casino industry’s trade group, said the casinos “are doing everything they can to support their employees through this difficult time.” he said.

The association said companies including Wynn, Las Vegas Sands and Station have agreed to pay workers through mid-May, and Wind Creek is doing so through May 31.

MGM Resorts International has an $11 million emergency grant fund for employees with urgent needs, such as rent payments, mortgage payments, groceries or utilities.

Marlene Patrick Cooper, president of a Unite Here local representing casino workers in New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, said her region is in dire shape economically.

“This is a disaster that’s 10 times worse than Katrina,” she said. “They chose to keep their stockpile of cash for the investors. That came off the backs of these workers.”

Jaron Ashley, a bartender at the Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi, said the casino companies have cash reserves they can rely on. And others said the gambling companies can borrow money at historically low rates right now to keep workers on the payroll.

“The money is not the problem,” he said. “It’s the want-to.”

Unions are helping laid-off workers apply for unemployment, and some are operating food banks. Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of a Culinary Workers Union local in Las Vegas, said it has handed out 9,000 food baskets to unemployed workers, with 6,000 more ready to go next week.

Unite Here will keep its members health insurance paid through the end of June.

The workers also called on the casinos to hire additional housekeepers to deal with the deep cleaning and repeated sanitizing the casinos are going to need once they reopen.

Jason McKnight, a bartender at Harrah’s in Atlantic City, said the casino companies are likely to receive significant help from federal assistance measures.

“You’re going to go to the government and say, ‘ We need a bailout,’ ” he said. “Well, where’s our bailout?”