Las Vegas Strip workers sue over coronavirus safety concerns


John Locher / AP

In this April 28, 2020, file photo, the sun sets behind casinos and hotels along the Las Vegas Strip in Las Vegas. Unions representing 65,000 Las Vegas-area casino workers are suing some resort operators, alleging that employees are being put at risk of illness and death due to skimpy safety measures during the coronavirus pandemic. A lawsuit filed Monday, June 29, 2020, in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas does not directly cite the death last week of Adolfo Fernandez, a 51-year-old Caesars Palace porter and union member who was diagnosed with the COVID-19 respiratory illness after returning to work when casinos reopened June 4.

Mon, Jun 29, 2020 (6 p.m.)

Sixto Zermeno worked three shifts at the Signature hotel-condos at the MGM Grand after businesses in Nevada reopened from the coronavirus shutdown.

After his third shift, he had a fever, body aches and the worst headache he’s ever had, he said.

Zermeno, a bellman at the Signature, has tested positive for the coronavirus. His shifts were marked by short staffing and guests not distancing from one another, he said.

Zermeno spoke at a news briefing Monday from the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 headquarters.

The union has filed a lawsuit against several Las Vegas Strip businesses, alleging they have not adequately protected employees and their families from the coronavirus.

The union is seeking injunctive relief under the Labor-Management Relations Act.

Companies named in the lawsuit are the Signature Condominiums at the MGM Grand, Sadelle’s Cafe at the Bellagio and Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen and Bar at Harrah’s.

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer for the union, said 19 union members have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic.

“This is a situation where you can get really, really sick or you can die. You can contaminate people so easily; you can (transmit) the virus so easily,” she said.

The lawsuit alleges the companies have violated collective bargaining agreements by adopting rules concerning workers’ health and safety that are unreasonable and put workers in danger.

A spokesperson for Caesars Entertainment, which operates Harrah's, said the company would not comment on the merits of the union’s lawsuit, but it acted in accordance with its health and safety protocols when it learned an employee at Guy Fieri’s tested positive.

The company identified coworkers who came into close proximity of the sick employee, and they are now self-isolating with pay, the spokesperson said.

“To the best of our knowledge, none of these employees have tested positive for COVID-19, but none will be allowed to return to work until they submit a negative test at the end of the isolation period,” the spokesperson said. “Additionally, the restaurant has been temporarily closed and subject to a deep cleaning during the closure period.”

MGM Resorts International, in a statement, said that “nothing is more important to us than the safety of everyone inside of our properties.”

The company said it has worked to create a “comprehensive health and safety plan,” offered free virus testing to employees before they return to work, and required testing for employees who exhibit symptoms or have been around somebody who has tested positive.

“We have worked to train our mangers in our incident response protocols and we work very closely with the Health Department officials in their efforts to contact trace,” the statement said.

“The nation is in the midst of a public health crisis and we are relying on all of our employees to follow CDC guidance both at work and at home,” the statement said.

Zermeno, however, said there wasn’t a clear procedure for what to do after he tested positive.

After making multiple calls, he got through to corporate offices to explain the situation and report his positive result and the people he was in contact with at work, he said.

“I haven’t heard anything from the company,” he said. “It’s been, I believe, 18 days that I haven’t heard from corporate.”

Zermeno got emotional when he talked about having to avoid his family out of concern for transmitting the virus.

“I live with my parents and my brother, and it’s been extremely difficult for me,” he said. “I’ve been pretty much locked in my room, and it’s hard because my parents are both diabetic, they’re both elderly.”

Zermeno said he hasn’t seen his 9-year-old daughter in weeks and is still testing positive for the virus.

“It hurts me because I haven’t seen her in such a long time, and I miss her,” he said.

Eric Weininger, a cook at Guy Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen and Bar, said he came into contact with a coworker who tested positive.

He said he talked to managers about the situation and was asked by his chef if he would be comfortable returning to work before he was tested, which he declined. The company seemed “blasé” about the potential exposure, he said.

Jonathan Munoz, who also works at Guy Fieri’s, said he was exposed to a coworker who tested positive for the virus and that employees were not required to be tested before returning to work.

Munoz said that his wife works at the restaurant as well and that her immune system is compromised. He’s waiting for the results of a test he got on his own.

“I want to ask Caesars if you’re going to take care of my kids if something happens to me (or) if I get sick,” he said. “I am fighting for my coworkers, my family, for us to be healthy. I want the companies to treat us like humans and not like machines that only make money for them.”

Irma Fernandez is the daughter of Adolfo Fernandez, who was a union member and porter at Caesars Palace. Adolfo Fernandez died recently from complications from the virus.

Irma Fernandez was emotional when she remembered her father, whom she called a hard worker and a “happy, bighearted person.”

“Even if he had high blood pressure, that didn’t stop him from showing up to work and trying his best every single day,” she said.

Adolfo Fernandez was tested before returning to work, and the test came up negative. Before he died, he was worried about catching the virus, his daughter said.

“My father would constantly tell me every day, ‘I know I’m going to get sick at work. I just know it. The company is not keeping us safe,’” she said.

Irma Fernandez said her father didn’t want to go back to work but had to support his family. She said she knew something was wrong when he would get home from work and immediately go to sleep.

He could barely push his cart on his last day at work, she said. His manager told him to go home but he stayed at work, Irma Fernandez said.

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