U.S. casino workers want virus protections before reopening

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Casino workers across the country want their employers to provide them with protective equipment and adopt tough new cleaning and social distancing policies before the gambling halls reopen during the coronavirus outbreak.

Union leaders and workers from casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, held a video press conference Tuesday to call for all workers to be tested at the casinos' expense before returning back to their jobs.

The calls came as New Jersey lawmakers proposed what could easily be tens of millions of dollars worth of tax breaks and other assistance to Atlantic City's casinos to help them survive the virus outbreak.

Two of the country's largest casino worker unions, Unite Here and the Culinary Workers Union, also laid out detailed health and safety protocols unique to each worker's job.

``I'm scared to touch dirty beds and towels and catch the virus and get my children sick,'' said Gladis Blanco, a guest room attendant at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

From the smattering of reopening plans revealed by a small number of casino companies, there appears to be agreement on some of the basics of what the workers want. Companies including Wynn Resorts, Hard Rock and Las Vegas Sands have all endorsed providing masks and gloves, and embraced social distancing.

But the union's requests go much deeper, asking not only for new procedures, but major new commitments of time and resources to implement them. Donald ``D'' Taylor, Unite Here's national president, said workers have to be given ample time to carry out the higher level of cleaning that guests will expect.

The American Gaming Association, the casino industry's trade group, said specific plans will vary among casinos, but ``our commitment to the well-being of our team members and guests is consistent all across the country.''

The requests came as New Jersey lawmakers began considering a pair of bills that would grant millions in tax relief to the nine Atlantic City casinos.

``We have to find ways to get these casinos open safely and get people back to work,'' said state Senate President Steve Sweeney, one of the sponsors. ``The economy of this region is totally dependent on tourism, and that's going to be one of the hardest to recover.''

One provision would authorize the state treasurer to lend the casinos money from a tax relief fund that in parts helps keep senior citizens taxes down.

The money would be used to make payments in lieu of taxes that the casinos owe to the city of Atlantic City on May 1 and Aug. 1.

In another provision whose benefits could quickly add up, the $500 annual license fee for each slot machine would be waived for a year starting July 1. That would collectively save the casinos nearly $9 million.

The Casino Association of New Jersey urged passage of the bill, calling them ``critical to ensure our industry and its thousands of employees have a path forward once we are through this pandemic.''

Casino workers on Tuesday's video conference all described being eager to return to their jobs, while fearful of getting sick in doing so.

``My son works at a small hotel property. Is he going to bring a virus home to me?'' asked Brenda Tucker Cassity, a bakery worker at the Beau Rivage casino in Biloxi. ``I have elderly parents. I worry I might be bringing it home to them.''

Jeff Payne, a lounge server at Caesars casino in Atlantic City, said the most important thing is that casino management and workers realize they are in this together.

``The casino industry, built on rewards and tiers, must understand that we are all equal,'' Payne said. ``COVID virus doesn't care how much you gamble or what tier you are.''