July 2, 2020
The unions representing 60,000 culinary workers and bartenders in Las Vegas filed a lawsuit this week against three major casino operators accusing the companies of failing to adequately protect their workers from the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. The lawsuit is one of the first such major actions in the nation to hold employers responsible for COVID-19 infections as cases surge in more than 25 states.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas against the owners of Harrah’s, MGM Grand and Bellagio casinos, alleges the companies didn’t immediately shut down food-and-beverage outlets and other areas after learning of positive cases, didn’t immediately inform employees when co-workers tested positive and didn’t conduct adequate contact-tracing before allowing colleagues of infected workers to return to their jobs. The lawsuit also alleges some of these companies didn't erect basic physical plexiglass safety barriers around common areas, such as the bell desk and registration desk.
In an exclusive interview with the Prevention Podcast, which will be aired in its entirety on July 6, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the Secretary-Treasurer for the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, said the situation in Las Vegas for hospitality workers is a game of life and death, and some employers appear to be prioritizing profitability over safety and lives.
"They have positive cases and they don't shut down immediately to clean it up. Instead, they expose the workers in there," Argüello-Kline said. "They've been failing to conduct the contact tracing to determine who the worker was working that day and that's putting in danger the other workers and their families too. They've been failing to inform the employees when they have a positive case in one of the coworkers over there and leave the workers completely vulnerable about the situation. They've been giving false information about COVID-19, how it spreads and what symptoms people feel. That's to try to keep the workers and continue to get the revenues," she said.
Since March, Local 226 has lost 19 of its members to COVID-19. As of this writing, Nevada has more than 19,000 confirmed cases and 512 deaths from COVID-19.
In response to the lawsuit, MGM Resorts told the Wall Street Journal that the company has offered free testing to workers before returning to the job and requires testing for anyone with symptoms or who might have been exposed. Managers have been trained in response protocols and work closely with public-health officials on contract tracing following positive test results, according to the company.
Among the most serious allegations in the lawsuit, reviewed by the Prevention Podcast, is that the casinos "failed to immediately inform their employees of positive tests among their co-workers, leaving workers who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of preexisting conditions (or who live with family members who are particularly vulnerable) guessing as to what precautions they must take."
The most blatant example of how existing systems failed to help mitigate the impact and spread of COVID-19 is the case of Sixto Zermeno, a bellman at The Signature at the MGM Grand. When Zermeno received his positive test result, he diligently attempted to warn The Signature and its parent company, MGM Resorts. He called his front-line manager, but was unable to reach him. He then called the front-desk manager, who transferred him to The Signature’s General Manager. Zermeno told the General Manager that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and asked her what he was supposed to do.
The General Manager told Zermeno that he should call MGM’s Virtual Roster scheduling system. But when Zermeno called MGM’s Virtual Roster system, the representative told him that the MGM Virtual Roster was not the right place to report a positive COVID-19 test. The representative from MGM Virtual Roster then provided Zermeno yet another person to call, from MGM Resorts’s corporate office.
When Zermeno told that MGM representative that he had tested positive for COVID-19, she told him that he should text and email his positive result to her. The MGM representative did not ask Zermeno any questions about whom he had contact with at work or give him any other guidance on what he should do. The same day, on June 11, Zermeno texted and emailed his positive test result to the MGM representative.
All of these major risk management lapses could have been effectively addressed through the adoption of a mobile app that can support daily one-touch health check-ins or privacy-compliant health surveys based on CDC guidelines, reliable and effective two-way safety communications, and the ability to provide resources to hospitality workers in response to rapidly changing health conditions and guidance. LiveSafe provides all the tools the hospitality industry needs to keep their employees informed, monitor their well-being, engage them in two-way conversations (discreetly and anonymously), and keep them safe by leveraging cutting-edge mobile and web technologies.
"This is so serious," said Argüello-Kline. "We have a pandemic. We have a crisis and we have a responsibility right now to take care of people who live in Las Vegas. When you're adopting unreasonable rules and processes to take care of the spread of COVID-19, you're not helping everybody here to be protected," she said. "And that's why we take it so seriously. This is a very, very serious illness. People can die with this illness and your recovery, when you recover, takes a lot away from your health."