Laid-off workers lobby for return to jobs at pre-COVID wages

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LAS VEGAS (AP) – Tami Paynter planned to park her way to retirement.

But the Las Vegas valet driver of 34 years is no longer sure her plan will pan out.

Now age 60, Paynter was laid off a year ago from her union job at the Plaza Hotel & Casino. Her contract allows her rehiring until July 31, but the call has not come.

If she is called back, her pay, benefits and seniority will restore to what they were before the layoff. If not, she will be terminated and left to find work elsewhere.

News headlines have heralded the restart of Nevada’s economic engine in Las Vegas, but frontline service workers like Paynter have yet to see progress in their own lives. Many are struggling.

Paynter collects employment. She cut down on food to stretch her money. She burned through her hard-earned savings to pay bills. She has a mortgage, job applications that go nowhere and retirement plans that may pause for the foreseeable future.

“For every one job you apply for,” Paynter told the Reno Gazette-Journal, “there’s a couple thousand other people applying for the same job. I haven’t gotten anything. Just silence.”

‘RIGHT TO RETURN’

Paynter is one of thousands of out-of-work Las Vegas union workers waiting on that callback.

Her hope has shifted toward a bill lawmakers are now considering that would give hospitality, casino and stadium workers laid off or furloughed during COVID-19 the “right to return” to jobs.

Senate Bill 386 is being pushed by Culinary Union Local 226, which contends only 50% of the labor giant’s 60,000 workers are back to work.

If passed, the law would require resorts to give laid-off workers their old job – or one they are qualified to do. While the wages of unionized workers would be protected contract, employees without a collective bargaining agreement would not be guaranteed the same pay.

What matters is getting people back to work, according to labor leaders.

“Knowing they will get their job back would at least give workers a hope they will not become homeless or struggle to feed their families, which are fears too many Nevadans and their families are dealing with every day,” said Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline in a statement.

On the other side of the aisle, companies like Station Casinos argue the union is only telling part of the story and ignoring the fact that many workers have been called back.

“The union continues to peddle false information to support its false narrative,” the company said in a statement. “It is a fact that we have already brought back well over 2,300 of our team members to work at various Station Casinos properties – and all team members that were reinstated kept their seniority dates and have been paid at the same rate or higher.”

All of those 2,300 employees, the company said, were previously laid off.

As Clark County’s unemployment remains over 9%, higher than the national average, others have not been so lucky. Here’s a look at some of their stories:

‘A REALLY REALLY ROUGH YEAR’

Shelly Stewart spent a quarter of a century as a Main Street Station cocktail waitress.

In March 2020, Boyd Gaming let her and many of her friends go.

“I’ve pretty much done the same job over the past 25 years,” she said. “I’ve invested so much time with the company that I’m not willing to give up yet. I’m not giving up on my job.”

‘I’M DESPERATE’

Before COVID-19, buffets were a Las Vegas staple. COVID-19 changed all that.

Social distancing and health guidelines made buffets obsolete almost overnight. Pre-pandemic, Las Vegas had about 40 buffets. Today, there are two – one at South Point and one at Cosmopolitan.

Kenia Cobas spent 15 years as a Green Valley Ranch frontline buffet worker before her layoff. Now the 43-year-old Las Vegas resident is wondering how to be jobless in a world where her skills translate nowhere else.

Workers at the Station Casinos-owned property voted the unionize, but the company has yet to sign a contract. With no recall rights to lean on, she’s banking on Senate Bill 386 to get her back to work.

In the meantime, she has been collecting unemployment and delivering food for money to pay bills.

“It’s the only good I could do,” said Cobas, who has a 13-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter at home. “I have no choice. I gave 15 years to the company. I had my benefits and everything and now I’m desperate.”

Meanwhile, the powers that be contend the bill will get in the way of Nevada’s economic recovery.

GAMING LOBBY OPPOSES THE BILL

The Nevada Resort Association is calling the “right to return” bill unnecessary, as tourism is now planning for the return of conventions, entertainment and special events that will attract more visitors and allow more employees to return to work.

The bill would open the door for employees to sue employers for failing to follow the law’s requirements, the association said in a statement.

“Nevada’s largest industry and economic engine continues to navigate the challenges created by the pandemic,” the statement said, “and now is not the time to create more obstacles to getting Nevadans back to work.”

Further, capacity restrictions in place at hotels, casinos and venues mean pre-pandemic staffing levels don’t match demand, according to the association.

“Most significantly, midweek business is at historic lows due to the lack of any trade show and convention business,” the statement said. “These circumstances have caused necessary staffing levels to fluctuate based on current demand.”

Senate Bill 386 will soon go through a work session in the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor before it will reach a vote in the Senate. A date for the work session has not yet been set.

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