Hotels hungry for revenue, compromising worker safety, suit says

Culinary Union sues MGM Grand, Bellagio, and Harrah’s Las Vegas

Signage after the Strip shut down in March. (Photo: Bridget Bennett)

Irma Fernandez says her father, Adolfo, tested negative for COVID-19 before returning to work at Caesars Palace on June 4.  

“I know I’m going to get sick, I just know it,” her father, a utility porter, said according to Fernandez. “The company is not keeping us safe.” 

“He was strong and healthy. Even if he had high blood pressure, that didn’t stop him from showing up to work every day,” she says. “He would call me on his break time and tell me how he was feeling. He said he didn’t want to go back to work but he had to support his family.”

Less than three weeks after returning to work, the 51-year-old utility porter was dead — the 19th member of Culinary Local 226 to pass from the disease.   

“He could barely push his cart the last day he went to work. He advised his managers and they told him to go home and take a point,” she said, referring to the property’s demerit system for time off. 

“During the last three days of his life, all he could think about was his job,” Fernandez said.  

Fernandez is one of 19 Culinary union members to lose their life to COVID 19 since March, says Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer. Countless others have been infected.  

On Tuesday, the union announced it’s asking a judge to declare injunctive relief for the Culinary against three properties, — MGM Signature Condominiums,  Sadelle’s Cafe at Bellagio, and a  Guy Fieri’s restaurant at Harrah’s Las Vegas — for breaching the union’s collective bargaining agreement.  

Fernandez’ family is not among the plaintiffs at this time.  

“Specifically, Defendants’ rules and procedures for responding to workers contracting COVID-19 have been wholly and dangerously inadequate,” the lawsuit says. 

The suit alleges: 

  • Resorts have not immediately shut down food-and-beverage venues and other work areas upon learning of positive COVID-19 cases. 
  • Employers have failed to conduct adequate contact tracing prior to permitting employees who worked with positive co-workers to return to work. 
  • They have failed to immediately inform employees of positive tests in the workplace, and have left at-risk workers “guessing as to what precautions they must take.” 
  • Employers have provided “flatly false information” about the symptoms and spread of COVID-19 “in an effort to keep workers on the job and revenues flowing.” 

The suit says Nevada’s nuisance statute prohibits use of property in a way that is “injurious to health … so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life[.] Defendants’ rules and procedures have created conditions that are injurious to the health of Joint Board members, and that have and will interfere with their comfortable enjoyment of life.” 

Nevada has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases since hotels reopened earlier this month.  The state’s seven-day moving average of case positivity has increased from less than 3 percent in late May to 16 percent on Monday.  

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety of everyone inside of our properties,” MGM Resorts International said in a statement.  “We have spent months working with health experts to create a comprehensive health and safety plan.  We have offered free testing to all employees before they report to work and require it if they exhibit symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive and we have made available tests in other circumstances that do not dictate that a test is required. We have worked to train our mangers (sic) in our incident response protocols and we work very closely with the health department officials in their efforts to contact trace.”

“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 company said.

“We don’t comment on pending litigation,” a Caesars Entertainment spokesperson said via email. 

Arguello-Kline noted the Culinary is the largest immigration organization in Nevada. Latinos, as well as Blacks, have been particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, accounting for a disproportionate share of deaths in relation to their population.  

Sixto Zermeno, a bellman at MGM Grand’s Signature Condominiums for the last ten years, says he never took a COVID-19 test before he returned to work when hotels opened in early June.    

He worked three shifts in short-staffed conditions before becoming ill and testing positive June 11 for COVID-19. 

“I didn’t know what to do at that point because the company never explained what to do if someone tested positive,” he said. 

When he finally reached a corporate executive, the company wanted a copy of the positive test result, which he provided.

“It’s been 18 days that I haven’t heard from corporate. The workers continued to work,” he says of his colleagues. “They weren’t sent to get tested after they knew I was tested.” 

“We’re not just numbers.  We’re families also.  We’re human,” he said. “I just want them to care, honestly.” 

Arguello-Kline declined to say whether the state re-opened resorts too soon.  

“We’ve been taking a very long time to have mandatory requirements,” she said, noting hotels opened June 4 and masks became mandatory just last week. 

“The state left them behind,” she said of workers.  

Dana Gentry
Senior Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, a grandson, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.