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Culinary Union Files Suit Against MGM and Caesars After Multiple Workers Contracted COVID-19

On June 4, Nevada casinos began to reopen. On June 24, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) issued a mandatory universal face covering policy following a spike in COVID-19 infections. On June 29, the Culinary Union filed suit against two MGM Resorts properties and one Caesars Entertainment property following multiple workers being exposed to COVID-19 while on the job.

What’s been happening this past month, and what does the Culinary Union’s new lawsuit say about how Nevada and America in general have been (mis)handling the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Unfortunately, we’ve taken steps backwards. We’ve seen a spike in positive cases, and we have to ask everyone to do what they can to keep everyone safe.” 
– Governor Steve Sisolak, at his briefing last Wednesday
Steve Sisolak, COVID-19, coronavirus
Gov. Steve Sisolak discusses measures to help the public with housing stability amid the COVID-19 public health crisis at a press conference at the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas, Sunday, March 29, 2020. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Pool) @rookie__rae

At his public briefing in Carson City last Wednesday, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) admitted, “Unfortunately, we’ve taken steps backwards. We’ve seen a spike in positive cases, and we have to ask everyone to do what they can to keep everyone safe.” And since then, Nevada’s COVID-19 numbers have taken another turn for the worse.

According to Nevada Health Response’s official database and The Nevada Independent’s running tally, Nevada has identified a total of 17,894 positively tested COVID-19 cases and 504 COVID-19 related deaths (as of 1:20 PM today). Nevada’s cumulative test positivity rate has risen further to 6.45% (from 5.69% last Wednesday) and the seven-day moving average has skyrocketed to 16%. 

These numbers indicate that contrary to state officials’ early optimism that Nevada could handle a major reopening of the gaming and tourism industry, and despite the Trump administration’s (with major help from his anti-science allies) ongoing gaslighting of Americans into believing that “the worst of the coronavirus is over”, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across America at breakneck pace. For the last three months, the Culinary Union has called for gaming companies and state regulators to take stronger action to protect workers on and off the Las Vegas Strip. Today, the Culinary Union is taking action on its own to make up for certain companies’ inaction and failure to protect their workers.

“We can’t just think about gaming revenues. We need to think about the people. These are real people who are at risk.” 
– Geoconda Arguello-Kline, Culinary Union
Photo by Andrew Davey

Earlier today, the Culinary Union announced a lawsuit against two MGM Resorts International property and one Caesars Entertainment property for refusing to take sufficient precautions to protect their workers. Despite Sisolak issuing a new mask mandate last Wednesday, Culinary leaders explained that workers still bear the brunt of casino companies’ neglect.

When asked at their virtual press conference whether the state moved too quickly to allow casinos to reopen on June 4, Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline replied, “[Casino workers] want to work, but they need to be safe. […] They’ve been left behind. The state left them behind.”

Arguello-Kline continued, “I heard the Governor say we lost 12 [hospitality workers]. Now, we’ve lost 19. How many more do we need to lose?” She then added, “We can’t just think about gaming revenues. We need to think about the people. These are real people who are at risk.”

“When he came home from work, he would go straight to his bedroom and go to sleep. At this point, I knew something was wrong with my dad, because he wasn’t that type of person.” 
– Irma Fernandez, on her father Adolfo’s state of health after returning to work at Caesars Palace

Culinary Union lawsuit to protect workers

Monday: Culinary Union to file a lawsuit against major Las Vegas Strip casino companies in order to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19 in the workplaceLas Vegas, NV – Culinary Union will file a lawsuit Monday, June 29th, 2020 on behalf of Culinary Union members who work in casinos on the Las Vegas Strip in order to protect workers and their families from the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.The Culinary Union is suing these companies for injunctive relief under the Labor-Management Relations Act based on the hazardous working conditions that workers face. The lawsuit alleges casino hotels have not protected workers, their families, and their community from the spread of COVID-19, and that the current rules and procedures in place for responding to workers contracting COVID-19 have been wholly and dangerously inadequate. WHO:*Geoconda Argüello-Kline, Secretary-Treasurer for Culinary Union*Culinary Union members who are named in complaint*Daughter of a Culinary Union member who has passed away recently from COVID-19

Posted by Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on Monday, June 29, 2020

Culinary’s lawsuit specifically names three sites where workers were exposed to COVID-19: MGM Resorts properties MGM Grand (specifically, the Signature hotel) and Bellagio (specifically, Sadelle’s Cafe), and Caesars property Harrah’s Las Vegas (specifically, the Guy Fieri restaurant). In addition, Culinary is currently gathering evidence on the death of utility porter Adolfo Fernandez, who contracted COVID-19 after returning to work at Caesars Palace (another Caesars property).

During Culinary’s virtual press conference, Adolfo’s daughter Irma Fernandez explained, “Before he went to work, he got a test that showed up negative.” And yet, she remembered her father Adolfo saying, “I know I’ll get sick at work. I just know it.” Irma Fernandez then added, “He constantly got stressed at work, and I could see it in his face. He said he didn’t want to go back to work, but he had no choice. He needed to support his family.”

Photo by Andrew Davey

Shortly after returning to work at Caesars, Adolfo began to exhibit multiple symptoms of COVID-19. According to Irma, “When he came home from work, he would go straight to his bedroom and go to sleep. At this point, I knew something was wrong with my dad, because he wasn’t that type of person.” She then said about her father’s employer, “I don’t know why Caesars trained their managers to be so careless and heartless when they know their workers are at risk every day.”

Irma went on to describe her father’s final hours: “He could barely push a cart the day the last day he went to work. He had body aches, and he advised his managers about it. Their response was, ‘OK, go home. Take [some time off].’ He didn’t, because he’s a hard working man. He turned around, and went back to work.” She continued, “He came home. He went straight to bed, and in the middle of the night we saw that he had a fever.” Adolfo passed away last Wednesday, June 24, just hours before Sisolak announced Nevada’s new mask mandate.

“They didn’t ask for more details. After I gave my test documents to them, I haven’t heard back. It’s been 18 days since I last heard from [MGM’s] corporate [office].” 
– Sixto Zermeno, MGM Grand Signature bellman
COVID-19, Culinary Union
Photo by Andrew Davey

In addition to Irma Fernandez, Culinary leaders had MGM Grand Signature bellman Sixto Zermeno, Guy Fieri (Harrah’s) cook Eric Weininger, and Harrah’s server Jonathan Munoz on the call. All of these properties are listed in the lawsuit, and Zermeno and Weininger have tested positive for COVID-19 while Munoz is awaiting his test results.

On June 10, Sixto Zermeno began to notice symptoms of COVID-19, including the “worst ever” headache. From there, he recalled, “I know I needed to get tested, so I got tested the next day.” After Zermeno learned he had tested positive, he called MGM’s corporate office. From there, “They didn’t ask for more details. After I gave my test documents to them, I haven’t heard back. It’s been 18 days since I last heard from corporate.” 

He then added, “As far as I can tell, my coworkers are still working. They haven’t been sent to get tested themselves.” Meanwhile for Zermeno, “It’s been extremely difficult for me. I’ve been locked in my room since then. […] I haven’t seen my daughter,” since he was tested on June 11. He then reminded everyone, “We’re not just numbers. We’re humans.”

“I’m concerned about bringing this home to my family. I love my job. I want to go back to work, but I really want this [high risk of COVID-19 infection] to be done.” 
– Eric Weininger, Guy Fieri restaurant cook
COVID-19, Culinary Union
Photo by Andrew Davey

For weeks, groups like the Culinary Union and Covid Act Now have been warning Nevada state and Clark County officials about the risk of reopening without necessary safety protocols, such as universal mask rules and establishing a large enough contact tracing program. During their own press call that occurred at the same time as Culinary’s, Nevada Health Response officials described how they’re using call centers for their contact tracing program, and they promised to begin tracking out-of-state tourists more thoroughly. 

Yet as Eric Weininger recalled Caesars’ response to learning of the COVID-19 exposure at his workplace, “Things were not handled properly. I didn’t receive that call [warning of exposure]. Instead, I went in the next morning.”

As he and four co-workers awaited word from their supervisors, “They told us to wait longer, because their managers were still in a meeting.” Yet when security officers and a human relations manager finally came, Weininger recalled them saying, “From the looks of it, you guys look well enough to work.” Ultimately managers allowed the five workers to go home, yet, “They were so nonchalant about it.” He then added, “I’m concerned about bringing this home to my family. I love my job. I want to go back to work, but I really want this [high risk of COVID-19 infection] to be done.”

“I feel like our company doesn’t care about our lives. I want this company to treat us like human beings, not just machines.” 
– Jonathan Munoz, Harrah’s food server
Photo by Andrew Davey

During their press call, Nevada Health Response officials claimed that increased testing factors into the state’s surging test positivity rates. However Covid Act Now still describes the state’s testing as “limited”, Covid Act Now estimates that Nevada can only contact trace 20% of infections within 48 hours, and Vox now places Nevada in its bottom tier of states that have made the least progress in containing COVID-19, alongside neighboring Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and California. 

During Culinary’s call, Harrah’s food server Jonathan Munoz noted, “When we got called back to work, we weren’t required to be tested.” He then noted, “My wife works at the same restaurant as me. She’s immunocompromised, and we have five little ones.” And on their employer, Munoz declared, “I feel like our company doesn’t care about our lives. I want this company to treat us like human beings, not just machines.”

Photo by Andrew Davey

The Culinary Union has filed this suit in federal court for injunctive relief under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, as they say MGM and Caesars violated the terms of their collective bargaining agreement with workers by putting so many workers at risk of contracting COVID-19. And as Arguello-Kline reminded everyone during Culinary’s call, “We’re not going to stop gathering evidence [of additional workplace safety violations]. COVID-19 is very, very serious. This is a disease where you can get really sick or you can die. This is a disease that easily spreads.”

If you’re in need of medical treatment, contact your primary health care provider first. If you fear you can’t afford treatment from a hospital or doctor’s office, check with the Southern Nevada Health DistrictWashoe County Health DistrictCarson City Health and Human Services, or the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services for resources in your area. For additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square.

This story was modified at 8:23 AM on June 30 to include the correct seven-day average test positivity rate. 

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