Gaming and labor leaders reach a compromise on ‘Right to Return’ legislation

Gaming and Culinary Union negotiators have tentatively agreed to revisions in legislation that would guarantee the rights of laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers to return to their jobs.

A deal on SB386 – referred to as “Right to Return” legislation – was reached with less than a week left before the end of the state's 120-day legislative session. Lawmakers wasted little time processing the bill — several hours after the initial publication of this story on Tuesday afternoon, members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee moved quickly to pass the amended bill out of committee on a split vote.

In an interview prior to the committee vote, bill sponsor and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) credited the Culinary Union, Nevada Resort Association and the governor’s office for working together to arrive at a consensus on the high-profile legislation.

“I think you're really seeing what is a recognition of the greater good and how do we get started to work together to get everything back to where we need it to be,” she said.

As part of the agreement, revisions will be made to SB4, a bill from the 2020 special session last summer that includes government-imposed health and safety standards meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as expanded liability protections for major casino resorts. The amendment relaxes requirements on cleaning, such as cleaning minibars, headboards and decorative items on beds, and changes directives to clean throughout the day to instead call for cleaning daily.

Critics of the legislation had raised concerns that the bill in its original form would make it too easy for former employees to sue. The bill now offers recourse through the Labor Commissioner or through the courts, but only after the employee notifies their employer of the alleged violation and gives them at least 15 days to fix the issue.

“I think we've heard a lot of those concerns. We've tried to make sure that the bill still allows for enforcement while not opening up the doors of litigation,” Cannizzaro said.

In its original form, the bill required employers who declined to call back a former employee because that former worker lacked qualifications — and instead hired someone else for the job — to provide the person they passed over with a written notice and reasoning for the decision within 30 days of making it. The amendment limits the callback requirement, covering employees only if they accept or decline the job offer within 24 hours (revised down from 10 days in the initial bill) and are available within five days of receiving an offer.

Employers are also cleared of their obligations to re-hire someone if their job offers are turned down three times over a period of at least six weeks, or if mail or email is returned as undeliverable or a phone line is out of service.

The amendment specifies that managers and stage performers are also excluded from the provisions, and its provisions would not supersede or preempt any collective bargaining agreement already in place.

The amendment also covers areas of a resort casino that are leased to another operator, such as retail shops, restaurants, bars, and parking facilities.

Also, the amendment exempted restricted gaming operators which have 15 or fewer slot machines, such as bars, taverns, convenience stores, and grocery chains.

Bob Ostrovsky, a lobbyist representing the Nevada Resort Association, said the amended version of the bill would leave the association as officially “neutral” — promising not to support or oppose the bill as an association.  

He estimated that the industry was currently down about 66,000 casino resort employees from its pre-pandemic high, but estimated that only about 70 percent of the casino’s pre-pandemic workforce would end up returning to their previous positions, based on turnover history.

“We certainly have to think in terms of the masses of employees and the masses of paperwork that are required here, but I got to tell you, our members care,” he said. “Experienced and dedicated employees are what make these operations work. It's one thing to build a billion-dollar building. To operate it, you really need a well-honed team.”

Cannizzaro added in an interview prior to the committee vote that she hopes the bill will get bipartisan support because it “has a lot of buy-in,” although it does not need a two-thirds majority to move forward. 

Still, several Republican senators on the committee questioned portions of the bill. Sen. James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) asked why the measure did not have a small business exemption, and Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said he was concerned about the proposed remedies for civil action.

“I think in many respects, this is better than some of the [collective bargaining agreements] I’ve reviewed in the past, and this is applying to nonunion shops that don’t ordinarily have to deal with these,” Pickard said. “I think it’s going to be a significant burden.”

Union leader softens testimony

Union and gaming negotiators had spent months trying to hammer out a compromise on SB386. The bill has a waiver that exempts it from legislative deadlines. Gaming sources have said there are stark disagreements between union and business interests over the bill’s language.

Earlier Tuesday, UNITE HERE President D. Taylor was prepared to tell a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the labor group’s support for SB386, but he departed from his prepared remarks that were posted to the subcommittee’s website that accused certain employers – including the Nevada casino resort industry – of using the pandemic to “reduce” jobs and leaving workers out of an economic comeback.

In April, Taylor testified in the only public hearing for SB386. The Culinary Union has hosted rallies and engaged in door hanging campaigns aimed at pressuring lawmakers to pass the legislation. 

Taylor, who spent 26 years in leadership for Culinary Workers Local 226 before being appointed UNITE HERE president in 2012, told the panel that is chaired by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) that the state’s hospitality workers play a frontline role in providing resort industry guests a safe and secure environment.

“The idea is not to view workers as a cost item but viewed as a service product that brings back (consumer) loyalty,” Taylor told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion in response to a question from Rosen.

SB386 would allow workers in the gaming and travel sectors a right to return to their jobs. The bill covers those workers laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months in the year prior to the governor’s first COVID-19 emergency declaration.

The legislation is similar to at least a half-dozen other bills backed by the labor organization in other states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed legislation last month that requires hospitality and service industry employers to offer new positions to laid off workers. 

Taylor, in testifying Tuesday, softened his message in some areas, but stuck to the script in others.

He said employment is “lagging” in destination markets, such as Las Vegas, where 50 percent of union members in gaming have returned to work. In New Orleans, just 32 percent of the labor organization’s membership is back on the job.

Regional gaming markets, Taylor said, have had better success at bringing back employees, including Atlantic City, Ohio, Detroit and Mississippi. Those communities have returned 65 percent to 75 percent of UNITE HERE workers to their jobs.

In the prepared remarks, Taylor said opposition to SB368 by Station Casinos, the operating subsidiary of Red Rock Resorts, denies casino, hospitality, stadium and travel-related workers in Nevada their recall rights.

“In most cases, unless you have a union contract, there’s nothing that requires your employer to bring you back when the business returns,” Taylor wrote. “Workers who are terminated and replaced rather than 'recalled' make on average 11.8 percent less in wages when they get a new job,” Taylor said. “Of older workers who are laid off involuntarily, only one in 10 will ever earn as much again.”

At the outset of the pandemic, Station Casinos was one of just three casino operators, along with Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands, that committed to pay employees through shutdown.  

During his appearance, Taylor named Wynn Resorts, along with Disney in Florida, as companies that have stepped up to support their workforces.

In an interview following Taylor’s testimony, Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said SB386 is needed to ensure the labor organization’s members are able to return to their previous jobs.

Las Vegas casino operators have held nearly a dozen different job fairs in efforts to restaff hotel-casinos that were closed for 78 days a year ago and were hampered throughout the year by capacity restrictions and other COVID-19 operating procedures. Most casinos in Nevada are expected to return to 100 percent occupancy levels on June 1.

The $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas is facing challenges filling out its planned 5,000-person workforce.

Scott Sibella, president of the 3,506-room Strip property that opens June 24, told the Nevada Gaming Commission last week some 120,000 potential workers applied for jobs during the pandemic.

"We feel comfortable and made offers, but we're concerned about people changing their minds," Sibella said. He added that Resorts World has contingency plans in place for bringing on workers.

Sibella, a former president of MGM Grand Las Vegas, told the commissioners the resort is competing with other Las Vegas resorts in filling jobs.

"The Venetian is holding a job fair. They haven't done a job fair in 20 years,” Sibella said.

Updated at 8:44 p.m. to add additional details on the amendment and reflect that the committee passed the bill.

What Happened Here: A company town turned ghost town during the COVID shutdown starts to rebuild

The vehicles streamed into the pickup lines on a recent Monday, some with popped trunks awaiting cargo.

In a North Las Vegas parking lot, they inched toward a white tent, where workers loaded brown boxes and white plastic bags filled with food into cars, trucks and SUVs. The assembly line-like operation outside the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas popped up in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown to help thousands of furloughed workers put food on the table.

A year later, it hasn’t stopped. Instead, the Culinary Academy expanded and began allowing all community members to access the roughly 40-pound batch of fruits, vegetables, grains and meat — complete with recipe cards — designed to feed families.

As of early March, the food assistance program had donated 11.5 million pounds of groceries, or the equivalent of about 35 million meals. On any given week about 6,000 to 8,000 vehicles roll through the drive-through-style line, and that figure doesn’t include deliveries made directly to those in need who cannot leave their homes or food distributed at smaller pop-up sties.

“I can tell you that the lines aren’t getting any shorter at all,” said Mark Scott, chief executive officer of the Culinary Academy. “...This past year is really a hole fairly wide and fairly deep for people, and it’s going to be a long time before people are able to dig out.”

But across town another pickup line was seeing equal, if not greater, activity —  the passenger pickup area at McCarran International Airport. Hordes of flight-weary travelers, some donning face masks, scanned the line of cars as horns honked and doors opened and shut. 

A year ago, this was not the case. The normal hustle and bustle of a busy airport had been swiftly replaced by an eerie quiet.

Now, the two pickup lines — separated by miles and purpose — nod to the region’s hopeful but challenged circumstances. 

Nevada is, once again, healing, just as it did after the tourism industry was rocked by 9/11, the Great Recession and 1 October. Vaccination numbers are climbing, case numbers and hospitalizations remain relatively low and spring has brought forth not just tourists but an increasing sense of optimism about the future.

But the truth is Nevada’s healing has only ever been surface deep, its wounds still raw beneath and ready to break open at even the slightest injury. 

Amid all the talk of economic diversification over the last decade, experts say Nevada has failed to invest in the necessary level of change to build a more stable economy. The memories of past economic devastation often quickly fade as Nevada once again returns to boom times and trusts the glittering lights of the Las Vegas Strip to save it.

Some would say Nevada’s close relationship with business is what gives the state an edge. When Nevada struggled to secure necessary supplies for hospitals in the early days of the pandemic, for instance, gaming and mining companies donated millions of pieces of personal protective equipment, money and other resources through the governor’s private-sector COVID task force.

But Nevada’s reliance on industry to save the day has also time and time again left the state dependent and vulnerable. At first it was mining, an industry so valuable, and powerful, that it was granted a special, favorable taxation structure when the state’s Constitution was written in 1864. 

Then it was the casinos, who have so wholeheartedly opposed industry-specific taxes that they have gone so far as to support a widespread tax increase that would equally affect all larger businesses in Nevada. There was Tesla, Faraday Future, the Raiders and, now, Blockchains, all enterprises touted as the state’s next economic cure-all.

In its nearly 157-year history, Nevada has been unable to shrug off being a company town. This time, it’s put the state in the impossible position of choosing between saving its residents from COVID or financial devastation. 

Now, the question is whether, as the lights on the Las Vegas Strip grow brighter, Nevada will once again be drawn like a moth to flame or whether it will truly diversify its economy while fixing a long-ailing unemployment system. The question is what the future holds for Nevada’s workers — many of them workers of color — who are the lifeblood of the economy and the first ones to suffer when good times turn bad.

The question is whether history will once again repeat itself.

The shutdown was swift.

Six hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on March 17 that nonessential businesses would be required to shut their doors to halt COVID-19’s advance on the state, all gambling activity statewide ceased. It was the first time Nevada’s lucrative gaming industry had been prohibited from operating since gambling was legalized statewide in 1931.

Other quintessential Nevada businesses, including strip clubs and brothels, and other everyday establishments, such as salons, gyms and malls, were given an extra 12 hours to wind down their businesses.

The decision hadn’t come as a shock to gaming establishments, many of which had been on multiple calls with the governor leading up to the decision and some of which had already been making plans to shutter operations in light of canceled bookings and an increasingly bleak future for the tourism industry. Billy Vassiliadis, longtime Las Vegas adman, estimated there was 80 to 90 percent agreement among the resorts by the time the governor made his decision that the shutdown had to happen.

Plus, some casino operators saw what was happening half a world away and started preparing. Casinos in Macao shut down for 15 days in February last year.

“I think we could see that it was going to be a very serious matter and definitely going to affect operations based on what we had seen happen in Macao,” said Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association. “But I don't think anyone knew just how big an impact there was going to be or that there would be extended closures.”

More than six months earlier, the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) had carried out “economic cycle planning,” preparations that recognized a 10-year streak of economic growth would inevitably come to an end and unemployment would grow. But the domino of casino closure announcements was ominous for then-director Tiffany Tyler-Garner.

“Over time, there's this growing concern of ‘oh my gosh, yet another employer is indicating that they're putting folks on leave’ … and that all those tens or hundreds, or whatever size those businesses were, were headed our way,” she said.

The prospect of shutting down the gaming industry was more complex than it perhaps appeared from the outside. For starters, some casinos scrambled to find padlocks to secure their entryways. Locks, as it turns out, were not a standard feature in the 24-hour establishments.

Casinos also had to quickly devise plans for counting and safely storing cash, either on site or transferring via armored trucks to banks. Sandra Douglass Morgan, former chair of the Gaming Control Board, said regulators were fielding call after call from casino operators who wanted to ensure they were in compliance with all the logistical and accounting matters. At the same time, gaming properties were handling people-centric problems, such as notifying and accommodating hotel guests and standing up employee assistance programs for the wave of people facing sudden furloughs.

“If we had to do it all over again, obviously we would have said, ‘Okay, you have a week to close,’ to make sure all that information was put into place, but we didn’t at the time,” Morgan said. “But everyone was very understanding.”

State officials within the Department of Business and Industry, meanwhile, scrambled to help other businesses figure out whether they were considered essential and, therefore, whether they were required to shut down. The initial list of essential businesses Sisolak announced could remain open was specific, if incomplete: Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, truck stops, daycares, gas stations and health facilities.

That left the rest of the non-casino businesses in somewhat of a grey area. Workers at the Tesla Gigafactory, Allegiant Stadium and several marijuana dispensaries reported for work as usual on March 18, unclear whether their employers would be sending them home at noon.

Clarification came that afternoon — an hour after businesses were supposed to close — in the form of a “Risk Mitigation Initiative” document, which outlined 20 essential services and sectors. Among them were ones the governor hadn’t mentioned the previous night, including veterinarian services and pet stores, laundromats and dry cleaners, and auto repair services. Construction and mining businesses were, separately, granted permission to remain open as well.

But, at the time, there was little to no federal guidance about how essential businesses ought to remain open safely to protect themselves, their workers and their customers. So, state officials hurried to come up with their own guidelines. Terry Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state ended up being about two or three weeks ahead of the federal Department of Labor in the guidance it released for Nevada businesses and employees.

“Businesses can’t wait three weeks,” Reynolds said. “They need to know what they need to know quickly.”

Some of the issues state officials grappled with included how to keep small banks, which were legally required to stay open during the shutdown, running when their employees fell ill, and how to help restaurants safely pivot to a takeout model as dine-in operations closed. Reynolds said some restaurants were able to successfully shift their operations.

“Others did not shift very well,” he added. “It was very unfortunate because I think a lot of those may not come back at all.”

Echo & Rig, a popular steakhouse near Summerlin, saw a massive uptick in customers visiting its on-site butcher shop during the initial shutdown period when only takeout was allowed, chef and owner Sam Marvin said. But that alone didn’t spare the restaurant from feeling the sting of no in-person dining. 

At least half the Las Vegas restaurant’s employees were furloughed, and Marvin said a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established early on in the pandemic to help small businesses make payroll, “made the difference in us surviving or not surviving.”

The restaurateur doesn’t hold a grudge against state officials. Compared with California, where he operates two restaurants, Nevada gave a much earlier green light to some in-person dining when the state started to reopen. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the virus initially, Marvin said he didn’t disagree with the shutdown, though he acknowledges his opinion may differ from others in the restaurant industry who couldn’t hang on financially.

“How can you disagree if you don’t know better?” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”

Echo & Rig’s furloughed employees were just a small slice of the hundreds of thousands of employees who lost their jobs almost overnight, pushing Nevada unemployment to levels worse than those seen during the Great Depression. In April, more than 28 percent of Nevadans were unemployed, up from 3.6 percent in February.

Those hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Nevadans quickly overwhelmed the state’s unemployment system, which was accustomed to handling about 2,500 initial claims a week but received more than 92,000 as the shutdown began. In the past year, half a million Nevadans have collected at least one week of unemployment benefits out of a workforce of 1.5 million, and the agency has received nearly two million initial applications for benefits.

“We were in response mode, without knowing exactly what the floor or ceiling would be,” Tyler-Garner said.

DETR’s problems were numerous, including a staff that had atrophied over the past decade as the federal government drew down funding. Issues as small as a vacation payout to a claimant would trigger “adjudication,” or an analytical review, but Tyler-Garner estimates only about seven people in the agency were qualified to manage that step when the crisis hit, for example.

Early on, the federal government answered pleas to support gig workers ineligible for traditional unemployment by creating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, but Nevada officials feared that adding PUA programming into the brittle system processing traditional claims would crash it and cut off claimants already receiving benefits. They bought a separate software product to administer PUA in the name of speed and IT stability, but it created a bifurcated system that bedevils claimants to this day.

Mike Powers, a guitarist who worked for a talent agency that dispatches musicians for gigs ranging from conventions to sidewalk entertainment, is one of them. From the first day he applied to PUA, the system flagged his Social Security number as tied to another existing claim, and he believes he’s stuck in limbo a year later because someone in California filed a fraudulent application in his name. 

Every day is a financial emergency, he says, but he holds out hope that he’ll someday emerge from the Byzantine system and claim the tens of thousands of dollars he believes he’s owed.

“I would hate to think that I was so close to solving the riddle and then, you know, it did not happen,” he said. 

Much of the messaging from Sisolak early on was about the public health crisis at hand and flattening the curve of what was at the time an unknown and deadly virus. But to the quarter of Nevadans who were unemployed and struggling to wend their way through the bureaucratic nightmare that was the state’s unemployment system, it often felt like they were being left behind.

Joshua Meltzer, 29, worked as a singing gondolier at the Venetian and switched to the business side of live entertainment just before the pandemic hit. But a year later, he hasn’t been paid unemployment, and after months of trying to make it with the help of friends, he left the state for Minnesota and is working a clerical job to make ends meet.  

He described the last year as a financial, emotional, philosophical and spiritual crisis all rolled into one. He’s always seen government as a force for great good, but its inability to help him has challenged that belief.

“I feel betrayed, in a way, by Nevada, which has been a place of … rejuvenation,” he said. “If that community doesn't take care of its own in crisis, I don't know if that can be my long term home anymore.”

Claimants have also criticized elected officials’ handling of the situation, from the governor failing to mention the unemployed in certain press conferences to formulaic responses when claimants poured out their hearts in desperate emails to their congressional representatives.

“The best thing you can do is just listen better and realize that there are people that are truly hurting,” Powers said. 

Reflecting back on his public communications to unemployed Nevadans, Sisolak said he “tried to speak to their plight.” He also said he wishes the state had an “army of people” to quickly work through the hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims that poured in, noting it can take up to an hour for a state worker to process some of the more complex claims.

But, mostly, he blamed yearslong underfunding and neglect of the state’s unemployment system. During a period of record low unemployment in 2019, DETR told lawmakers that after years of successive budget cuts, it was struggling to handle its call volume and expected to be able to handle only 2,800 phone calls a week in 2020.  

During the pandemic, a single claimant from Dayton reported calling DETR 2,200 times during a two-week period in April, and many others reported placing hundreds of fruitless calls a day.

“You've got a system that was basically ignored session after session after session,” Sisolak said. “Then when suddenly you're hit with a pandemic that you get claims that are 20, 25 times what you are normally getting, no system is going to work under that situation.”

To make matters worse, state officials were also tasked with sifting fraudulent claims from the legitimate ones. While DETR hasn’t quantified how many illegitimate claims were approved and how much the state paid out on those claims, they estimate they prevented billions of dollars of fraudulent payouts through blocking payment on hundreds of thousands of claims on which they couldn’t verify identity.

As of March 4, DETR reported there were 306,632 claims with pending identity issues that are suspected to be fraudulent. At least another 437,000 PUA claims were denied over identity verification issues in two rounds of mass disqualifications last year.

“The amount of fraud that was happening was unconscionable,” Sisolak said. 

But a focus on fraud has had unintended consequences for claimants. Amber Hansen, an administrator of a popular Facebook group for PUA claimants, said it casts a stigma on PUA applicants “that we’re fraudulent … some of us are inherently bad.”

“We still do have people that have eligible claims, and that need to be helped,” she said. “We have to kind of move off that issue.”

Jason Guinasso, a Reno attorney who studied DETR’s backlog as a court-appointed special master last year, said the unemployment agency has erred too much on the side of trying to control fraud, and is making policy “based on the exception, not the rule.” He compared it to a department store assuming all its customers showed up to steal.

“Imagine if they ran their store based on trying to stop shrinkage, and that's all they cared about,” he said. “Your experience going to Macy's to buy a dress would be a lot different than it would be if they were running their store to cater to the majority of people [who] are not there to steal.”

The governor praised the staff at DETR, which increased the number of people working on unemployment issues threefold by January and had many staffers working overtime to process unemployment claims under immense pressure, scrutiny and even threats, including to the director of the department. But he also acknowledged the state’s shortcomings.

“Could we have done a better job? Certainly we could have done a better job,” Sisolak said. 

As spring pushed toward summer and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 started to decline, the number of people unemployed because of COVID-19 creeped higher. Pressure mounted on Sisolak to start reopening the state’s economy. Leaders in some local jurisdictions signaled they weren’t going to wait for the governor’s lead, touting their own plans for reopening.

At the end of April, Sisolak announced the state would begin an “active transition” toward reopening that would start with some of the safest businesses, including indoor retail spaces, before progressing to the riskier establishments, such as casinos. At the time, he credited Nevadans’ “incredible discipline” in halting the spread of the virus.

The casinos had a model for reopening: Macao. Casinos in the special administrative region in China had already opened their doors again. But when they did, it was with significant capacity limits, social distancing at table games and slot machines, temperature checks and face masks. Resorts in Las Vegas could essentially take the Macao playbook, make a few adjustments for scale, and put it into practice.

Casino floors — known for their winding paths that keep gamblers wandering and shoving money into slot machines — would have considerably more elbow room. The Gaming Control Board issued a policy document in May spelling out some of the new rules of the trade.

Table games now have player limits: six people for craps, three for blackjack, four at roulette and poker tables. Some slot machines, meanwhile, were placed in an extended hibernation to make way for social distancing. Conversations also occurred around how to disinfect gaming chips without compromising their integrity.

And then there was the human aspect.

The Culinary Union lobbied hard for the approval of SB4 during a special legislative session last summer. The bill, which passed and was signed into law by the governor, shields many Nevada businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 — but only if the companies adhere to the strict, government-imposed health and safety protocols that prevent spread of the virus. Union officials pushed for the measure in honor of Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter at Caesars Palace who died in June after falling ill with COVID-19.

Despite the bill’s passage, the union wants to see more done to protect hospitality workers, many of them on the front line interacting with people who have traveled to Las Vegas. D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, the parent organization of the Culinary Union, said he was unhappy that food service and hospitality workers weren’t prioritized higher up in the state’s vaccination schedule. Casino workers in Clark County did not become eligible for vaccines until Thursday. 

He framed it as both a safety and equity issue.

“Who are workers on the frontlines?” he said, referring to the union’s membership. “They’re predominantly female and people of color.”

For Las Vegas, as a tourist destination, the focus was not only on safety but how to effectively communicate to tourists how seriously the industry was taking precautions. This wasn’t the first time the city had to pivot its branding strategy. In the years after 9/11, the “What happens here, stays here” slogan was born. In the wake of 1 October, it was, “#VegasStrong” and a message of resilience.

But the city had never had to market itself in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. In the weeks before casinos reopened, cases had been fluctuating. In early June, right around when casinos opened, cases started to climb.

"This one, you didn't know where we were going,” said Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the ad agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It was like we were in this abyss, making decisions and consulting with folks with daily information that was fuzzy at best.”

The message Las Vegas ended up adopting was one that balanced safety with freedom. A weekend in Las Vegas, even with masks and social distancing, was still a lot more fun than a weekend stuck at home ordering DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats.

“We didn't need to have the old Las Vegas for them to feel free,” Vassiliadis said. “They just needed more freedom than the restrictions they had been living under for the previous three months.”

There was just one catch: Sisolak didn’t announce a statewide mask mandate until 20 days after casinos reopened. While employees were wearing masks, it was up to casino patrons whether to don that extra layer of protection. In mid-June, the Gaming Control Board issued an industry notice that required patrons to wear face masks at table games if there was no barrier or shield separating the players and dealers.

Even Caesar himself — the statue version, that is —  wore a giant mask in a bid to encourage others to follow suit. By the second week casinos were open, Morgan, then the state’s chief gaming regulator, said it was clear many people weren’t heeding that advice.

“It was harder for casino staff to tell people to wear masks if it wasn't mandated,” she said.

The governor’s order, issued on June 24, turned the option into a requirement. But controversy surrounding the decision spilled into gaming properties where some security officers suffered injuries after upset guests lashed out when told to wear a mask, Morgan said.

“No one should have bodily harm being threatened because you’re just doing your job telling people to comply with the mask mandate,” she said.

Pre-opening visitor surveys showed it was a “much younger and more rambunctious crowd” that was eager to return to Las Vegas, Vassiliadis said. And those surveys were borne out in reality: The crowd that first returned to Las Vegas was made up of younger, healthier people who were less concerned about contracting the virus and more concerned about busting loose after months of quarantine, and low room rates meant that some of Las Vegas’s top properties were now affordable for younger people, particularly if they stayed two or three to a room.

In the wake of its reopening, Las Vegas saw fights, shootings and stabbings on the Las Vegas Strip. In response, resorts stepped up their security and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department increased its police patrols.

“Underscoring that's not tolerated here to a lot of those visitors, I think, changed the situation rather quickly,” Vassiliadis said. “I don't think we suffered any kind of reputational long-term hit. I know we haven’t.”

At the state level, the governor’s office sought to convey to surrounding Western states the tightrope Nevada was walking by trying to balance the state’s economic and public health needs. In some ways, Nevada needed the buy-in of surrounding states so that they would keep sending their residents to Las Vegas and not blacklist the state through a travel advisory.

Michelle White, Sisolak’s chief of staff, recalled having “candid, open conversations” with other members of the Western States Pact, a compact established early on in the pandemic between Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, about Nevada’s difficult situation.

“We have states around us who I think were exceptional in understanding the situation that we were in … and genuinely were rooting for us to be OK,” White said. “Being able to explain that to folks and talk through that I think was really, really helpful in our efforts.”

Still, at one point in early December, California — which is home to 1 in 5 visitors to Las Vegas — issued a travel advisory encouraging residents to avoid nonessential travel to other states; it was a little less a month after Sisolak had encouraged visitors to continue traveling to the state even as cases surged in Nevada.

“If there were times where [Western states] said, ‘You know, we're concerned for our residents in a surge and so we're going to require quarantine,’ that’s an acceptable, reasonable thing to do for other leaders who are concerned about their residents. The way it was discussed, at least, was never about in response to Nevada directly,” White said. “It was more of, ‘This is a step we're going to take, this is another mitigation measure we're going to take to try to slow the spread and the surge.’”

For other businesses, reopening would bring with it a host of questions: Would employees have to wear masks? Could they hold meetings in person? What happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? There were also industry-specific considerations. How should salons disinfect their equipment? Could movie theaters open their snack bars? Would vehicles need to be sanitized at car dealerships between test drives?

To answer those questions and more, the state authored a series of reopening guidelines. Reynolds, director of the Department of Business and Industry, said the state got feedback on reopening plans from a number of different industries, from the Retail Association of Nevada to the REALTORS.

“In most cases, they were extremely helpful in terms of giving us perspective on what to look at and what can be done to keep things going and what we needed to do, how we need to approach things in concert with the medical advice that we got,” Reynolds said.

But businesses had to make adjustments beyond those required by the state to stay financially afloat as they reopened under strict capacity limits. Echo & Rig, for instance, added more seating in a second patio area that had previously been largely unused and trimmed its menu — from 60 to 42 items — as a cost-containment measure. 

Some menu items went up in price as well to balance the ripple-effect felt throughout the supply chain. Restaurants are still dealing with changes in where they’re able to source certain food items, he said. Some of their beloved vendors went out of business.

Marvin, the restaurant's owner, was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to venture out and dine at Echo & Rig once it opened its doors. He’s hopeful that customers, at his restaurant and other eateries, will continue to offer them patience — knowing that things will still look and feel a bit different because of safety protocols and other changes designed to keep the businesses viable.

Once businesses reopened their doors, the next challenge was enforcement. Reynolds said state officials took a “one, two, three” approach, giving businesses guidance on how to come into compliance on their first two visits before issuing citations on the third visit.

“A lot of businesses basically just needed a little bit of training on how to do things,” Reynolds said.

To date, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted about 13,000 first visits to businesses. Compliance with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols is about 92 percent in Northern Nevada and 90 percent in Southern Nevada, though Reynolds noted that compliance on first visits has been 100 percent most weeks since January.

Reynolds said that of the businesses found to be not in compliance with the state’s rules, he estimates only less than 10 percent were truly thumbing their nose at the state’s requirements. 

“We were tough on the front end on a lot of these businesses, but I think now we’re seeing for the last six, seven weeks good compliance overall,” he said.

And some businesses that initially seemed uninterested in complying with the state’s guidelines eventually came around, Reynolds said. About $60,000 in health and safety-related fines were issued to Walmart before it came into compliance.

“All of a sudden, corporate culture came in and started working on it very strongly,” Reynolds said. “It just took time. Once they did, it grabbed hold and they’ve done well.”

Even as businesses began to heal, Nevada workers continued to struggle.

When nonessential businesses started opening in May and the 78-day casino shutdown lifted on June 4, it didn’t have the same lightswitch effect with unemployment. There were still 285,610 people seeking Nevada unemployment benefits the first week of March — nearly one in five people in the state’s labor force.

A report by the Anderson Economic Group, which has been following the economic effects of COVID-19, described the December jobs numbers as a “continued trend of lethargic recovery.” Between November and December, the leisure and hospitality industry lost 2,000 jobs in Nevada, though gains in other industries offset that.

Only about 50 percent of the members of the Culinary Union, which represents roughly 60,000 resort employees across the state, including guest room attendants, cooks and porters, have returned to work since last year, though their work hours may not be the same. At the height of the shutdown, 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed.

“Our industry — the hospitality industry overall — has been the hardest hit,” said Taylor, UNITE HERE’s president, said. “Now, we always see signs of life coming back in certain areas, which is great, but until people feel very safe travelling, until they feel safe with indoor dining and staying indoors, it will be challenging.”

Mary Ann Bautista is among those who haven’t been called back to their union jobs. Before the pandemic, she spent 14 years as a buffet food server at The Strat. 

As a single mother with several teenagers still living in the house, she said it has been difficult to make ends meet on unemployment benefits alone. Bautista has leaned on the Culinary Academy’s food assistance program for help over the past year. She longs for the day when she can resume her job. 

“This is not our fault. We didn’t do this,” she said. “This is a pandemic. We didn’t ask for this. We work hard.”

DETR Director Elisa Cafferata said when she arrived at the agency in August, there were nonstop calls from constituents needing help and a major backlog. To this day, she said the applications haven’t tapered off as much as she expected.

“We've definitely made a lot of progress. There's still a lot of hard work to do,” she said. “The thing I'm most focused on is how do we sort of pivot and help people start thinking about going back to work.” 

But the employment figures also highlight a troubling trend, said Brian Peterson, director of public policy and economic analysis with the Anderson Economic Group. In Nevada, nearly 74,000 people dropped out of the labor force completely between February and December of last year. These are people who have reported not actively looking for a job in the past four weeks.

“The big question is, what are those 74,000 people doing?” he said. “Have they become discouraged? Are they planning on waiting out the pandemic? My guess is that at least some of those 74,000 folks want to have a job, but they just haven't been able to find anything.”

There is a certain optimism within the resort industry about Las Vegas’s ability to once again come roaring back as a tourist destination. 

Las Vegas has already, essentially, been at the capacity allowed under the state’s emergency directives for some of the recent three- and four-day weekends, Vassiliadis said. World of Concrete is slated to be the first major convention to return to Las Vegas in June, and Cirque du Soleil is hoping to bring back its aquatic acrobatics show “O” at the Bellagio by July.

Tourism officials say the old notion of Las Vegas — a great escape in the desert where fun and freedom trump judgment — could be the very reason it will bounce back more quickly than other destinations. Sure, it might currently lack some of the traditional offerings. Nightclubs, for instance, aren’t jam-packed with partygoers on the dance floor. But the sunshine, warm weather, dining and gambling options might be enough to lure travel-hungry guests, even if other entertainment options are somewhat limited.

“People want to see family and then they want to get away, and when they want to get away, Vegas tops that list,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Of course, this all boils down to people’s willingness to travel. Vaccine deployment will play a crucial role boosting that confidence level, state leaders say. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t exactly given would-be tourists its blessing. The nation’s top health authority recently issued guidance discouraging travel among fully vaccinated people — a point that has received pushback from some within the travel and health industries. 

Plus, it’s unclear whether COVID-19 cases will remain at their current plateau or see a springtime surge as a result of the increasing spread of variants and loosening restrictions. In Las Vegas, tourism outpaced projections when casinos initially reopened last summer but then took a nosedive toward the end of the year as coronavirus cases multiplied again.

“I'm pretty optimistic about the direction we're headed in now,” Hill said. “But we didn't anticipate the extreme nature of the spikes that we saw around Thanksgiving and Christmas and how much damage that did to the economy here.”

Another variable: the return of business meetings and conventions, which boost the economy during off-peak travel seasons. There’s even hope that some conventions might return to Las Vegas in the second half of 2021 and then return during their normally scheduled time in early 2022.

The Las Vegas they return to, however, will likely look a little different. Resorts have more eagerly embraced new technologies, such as remote check-in and keyless hotel room entry. In the case of MGM Resorts, a partnership with Clorox as the resorts’ “official guest disinfectant and hand sanitizer brand” is now a selling point.

Jim Murren, former CEO of MGM Resorts, envisions Las Vegas marketing itself as the “preeminent health safety tourist destination in America” — even beyond what resorts are already doing.

“When you do that ... we rip conferences and conventions away from Atlanta and Miami and New York and Chicago and Dallas and LA,” Murren said. “If they have a choice of listening to Lady Gaga in LA versus Vegas, and we can market that it’s safer to do it here, they’re going to come here.”

There is, however, less optimism about the future beyond the Las Vegas Strip. It’s not that state officials don’t believe Nevada’s economic situation will improve across the state — they do — but they worry about the small businesses and workers getting left behind.

Lawmakers have taken steps to help, including authorizing $100 million for the Pandemic Emergency Technical Support (PETS) grant. They hope $10,000 or $20,000 cash infusions backed by federal dollars will keep thousands of small businesses alive.

“It's always easier to keep what you've got … You're so much better off doing that and trying to spur new startups,” said Bob Potts, deputy director with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “The recovery side of things — that has to be paramount.”

Sisolak is hopeful he will be able to work with the Legislature to fix the longstanding problems with the state’s unemployment system. A computer modernization project that could cost up to $50 million is on tap for the next few years pending availability of funding, and a “strike force” led by former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley made extensive recommendations for how DETR could be better prepared to scale up staffing if another crisis hits as suddenly as COVID. 

“Prepare for war in times of peace,” Tyler-Garner advised. “I couldn't underscore more the need to ensure that we're always planning to strengthen our systems, because we never know what the demand might be in the future.”

But there’s also an acknowledgement among many in the state that Nevada’s problems run deeper, and that recovery cannot begin and end with Nevada’s tourism industry, or even with fixing the state’s unemployment system. The goal, they believe, has to be a long-term fundamental shift in thinking about the state’s economy. Murren, who became the CEO of MGM Resorts during the Great Recession, recalled seeing the “economic, social, mental, physical devastation of our community” because of Nevada’s reliance on one industry for a significant chunk of its tax revenue.

“Here we are again, and what did we learn? It seems very little,” Murren said. “Whenever things are doing well here in our state, there seems to be this expectation that they'll always be that way and that we should just not rock the boat.”

Tyler-Garner said before the pandemic, she had been working on how DETR would respond to problems that lurked just below the surface of the state’s illustrious unemployment rate: Wage stagnation. Jobs without adequate benefits. Dramatically higher unemployment in subgroups such as the formerly incarcerated.

“Some of the families that were already working two or three low wage jobs ... I shudder to think of what is happening to those families right now,” she said. “Those segments of our community were invisible.”

For Buckley, who runs Legal Aid of Southern Nevada as her day job and has seen the agency deal with a record of nearly 163,000 clients in 2020 in a region of a little more than 2 million, the pandemic has highlighted the need to invest further in the safety net and — deeper than that — Nevada schools.

“I think that key leadership throughout our state do recognize our shortcomings and are working on plans to change our over reliance on gaming and hospitality,” she said. “But as many have pointed out, it means more of an investment is needed in education and in our schools, to allow us to compete.”

That’s, in part, why the governor’s private-sector COVID-19 task force, which has in the last year helped the state secure personal protective equipment, ramp up testing, build out a contact tracing app and bridge the digital divide for students, plans to focus next on workforce recovery. Nevada was also one of nine states awarded up to $100,000 in grant funding through the National Governors Association to help states prepare for a post-COVID economy.

But Murren, who chairs the task force, believes economic diversification will only happen in Nevada if and when the state chooses to make a significant investment into the quality of life of its residents, including supporting education, health and safety, the elderly and homeless individuals. And he believes it will take the support of everyday Nevadans, too.

“What makes me incredibly angry is that so many people move to our state to avail themselves to our lifestyle, to our weather, to our natural beauty, to our entertainment, to what is great about Nevada, but they don’t contribute to it,” Murren said. “The will of the people seems to be that we don’t want taxes, or little taxes, or we don’t want to raise any revenue, any form of proper investment. Then, you get what you get in Carson City as well.”

Nevada’s budget was already slim to begin with, and it became even slimmer when lawmakers cut nearly a billion dollars from the state’s budget over the summer. That included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and education. Though Nevada received nearly $25 billion in federal aid in the last year, state officials felt like they were constantly worrying about how to pay for needed services.

“Nevada doesn’t have a huge safety net to provide on the best of days, and that’s the reality of it,” said White, the governor’s chief of staff. “That’s the hard reality of it.”

That reality is visible in places like the Culinary Academy’s parking lot. Its food distribution operation is called Helping Hand, and Scott, the organization’s CEO, said it’s not time to let go yet. The Culinary Academy anticipates providing food assistance to needy families through the end of the year in some form.

Scott knows community members remain appreciative.

It’s not uncommon, he said, to find notes of gratitude waiting in the vehicles’ trunks.

Part III coming Sunday, March 21.

Biden’s victory, key House wins upheld Nevada’s blue wall while Republicans chipped away at it down ballot

As the sun dipped below the horizon, closing out the seventh to last day before the election, Kamala Harris had a message for the supporters who had gathered on socially distant red, white and blue picnic blankets at an East Las Vegas park to hear her speak.

“You all are going to decide who is going to be the next president of the United States. You will decide,” the Democratic vice-presidential nominee told the crowd, to hollers and applause. “A path to the White House runs right through this field.”

President Donald Trump, speaking at a rally a day later just over the state line in Bullhead City, Arizona, was equally as bullish on his chances in Nevada.

“Six days from now, we are going to win Arizona, we are going to win Nevada, and we are going to win four more years in our great White House,” Trump told the crowd of thousands who had gathered.

It wasn’t just talk. Nevada, of course, mattered to both campaigns this election cycle. It’s why the Trump campaign focused on building out its Nevada operation long before there was even a Democratic presidential nominee. It’s why Joe Biden’s campaign doubled down on its voter outreach this summer when it felt like the contest was narrowing.

By the time the night of the election rolled around, though, it seemed as if, in many ways, Nevada’s importance had been written off. Polls had Biden several points ahead. The prognosticators anticipated Nevada would lean blue. Both Biden and Trump spent their final days in the battleground states that were ground zero for the 2016 election — states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

When results started rolling in on election night in Nevada, Biden had a sizable, if not overwhelming, 3 to 4 percentage point lead at first, as many had predicted. But by early Wednesday morning, as the votes continued to be tallied, Biden’s lead over Trump had shrunk to 0.6 percentage points, or 7,647 votes.

Suddenly, what had seemed like a sure bet for Democrats in Nevada earlier in the evening, wasn’t anymore, and the Silver State was thrust into the national spotlight as the presidential race here remained too close to call.

Of course, it wasn’t really. Over the span of several days, Biden managed to steadily grow his lead as outstanding mail ballots, most of which were in Clark County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, continued to be counted, as anticipated.

But to the rest of the country, which remained on pins and needles as the presidential race nationally also remained too close to call as votes continued to be counted in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, Nevada’s vote counting seemed impossibly slow, inspiring countless memes across social media.

Finally, four days later, the race in Nevada was officially called for Biden, just about half an hour after some media outlets called the entire race for the former vice president. Though a small number of ballots still remain to be tallied, Biden’s lead in Nevada stands at 2.39 percentage points, or 33,596 votes, as of Saturday.

From the outside looking in, Biden’s victory in Nevada may seem predictable because Nevada looks like a blue state. Its governor is a Democrat, both of its U.S. senators are Democrats, three out of four of its House members are Democrats and both chambers of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats. But neither Republicans nor Democrats here have been willing to concede that Nevada is, in fact, a blue state.

For Democrats, those victories have all come hard fought, some won by the skin of their teeth. In 2016, Catherine Cortez Masto won her U.S. Senate race and Hillary Clinton won the presidential race both by 2.4 percentage points. Though margins of victory widened two years later with Steve Sisolak’s 4.1 percentage point victory in the gubernatorial race and Jacky Rosen’s 5 point victory in the U.S. Senate, Democrats knew that 2020 would look different.

Republicans knew this too. They knew that Trump voters who didn’t turn out to vote in 2018 would show up this year to vote for the president, and they hoped those voters could also be persuaded to vote Republican all the way down the ticket. They also hoped to persuade moderates that overwhelming Democratic control in Carson City wasn’t a good thing.

On that front, Republicans appear to have succeeded. While Democrats celebrated their win at the top of the ticket, they actually lost ground down the ballot in the Legislature. Three Assembly seats that Democrats had picked up in 2018 returned to Republican hands, meaning that Democrats no longer have a supermajority in that chamber, and they lost a key state Senate seat as well, narrowing their majority.

And while Democrats held onto two competitive congressional seats, their victories were narrower than they were two years ago.

Still, Democrats look at the results of this election and see a blue wall. Even with their losses in the Legislature, they still hold majorities in both chambers. To them, the election once again demonstrates that ensuring Nevada votes blue takes work, and a lot of it.

“It should be crystal clear now that Biden would not have won Nevada but for a well-funded ground game ... We win in Nevada because we leave it all on the field — every cycle,” Rebecca Lambe, a longtime Democratic operative in the state responsible for building the Reid machine, said in an email. “We fund communications, we fund mail, we fund field —  we knock doors to push our voters to vote.”

Republicans, however, are hopeful in the wake of this election. They see the narrower margins as a sign of hope for the 2022 election. They also look at specific victories, such as the fact that Heidi Gansert, a Republican, was re-elected to her Washoe County state Senate seat even as the county swung decidedly for Biden, and that educator Carrie Buck flipped a state Senate district that has two Democratic Assembly seats nested beneath it as glimmers of hope for the future of their party — that the state might still be more independent than it has in recent years appeared to be.

"The biggest surprise to me in this election was the historic DNA of Nevada — being independent and looking at the person before the party — reappeared,” said Pete Ernaut, a longtime Republican consultant in Nevada. “The idea that there were ticket-splitters was as refreshing as it was surprising."

Voters line up to cast their ballots at West Sahara Library on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

How Biden won Nevada

Over the summer, some Democrats fretted that the presidential race in Nevada might be closer than anticipated. The coronavirus pandemic had forced them to toss their usual playbook out the window and, as the Trump campaign returned to knocking doors in person in June, their campaign remained virtual, hindering, in the eyes of some, their ability to effectively connect with voters.

Of course, Democrats had been hosting Zoom events, phone banks and text message drives, utilizing the framework of “relational organizing,” or the principle of having supporters tap into their personal networks to turn voters out to the polls. But the face-to-face connection was missing.

Enter the Culinary Union.

The politically powerful labor union, which represents 60,000 hotel workers across the state, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for turning the tides in favor of Democrats in close elections, most notably in Harry Reid’s 2010 U.S. Senate race. But its membership was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic: Ninety-eight percent of the union’s members were furloughed this spring, and only about half are back to work.

The union’s finances were hit hard, too. It had no money for a political operation. So, for the first time, they set up a super PAC, Take Back 2020, asked for help, and it came, from the Carpenters Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Operating Engineers, the American Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, and more, D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, said.

“If it had not been for other unions, individuals, organizations contributing to us, we never could have done this — ever, ever ever,” Taylor said.

The super PAC raised money nationally for Unite Here’s efforts, which included political operations in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida. But Taylor said the union raised more than $10 million for its Nevada operation alone, which deployed 500 canvassers in the field who knocked 500,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno and talked to 130,000 voters, including more than 42,000 eligible voters who did not participate in the election four years ago. 

“We didn’t have the money,” Taylor said. “Frankly, even if we had had the money, we still probably needed to set up a PAC. Just here in Nevada, Trump’s campaign was much more robust in 2020 than it was in 2016.”

Plus, there was an extra added benefit: The political operation also helped out-of-work union members put food on the table.

“Up in Reno we had folks come in from our locals in California who were laid off too and other locals besides Las Vegas,” Taylor said. “In Las Vegas a lot of folks were laid off workers who got to earn some money and change the country.”

It represented the Culinary Union’s largest — and earliest — political effort to date. When the union started talking to voters at the doors on Aug. 1, it was the only Democratic-aligned organization in the field. For Our Future, a super PAC focused on grassroots Democratic turnout, launched an in-person canvassing operation on Oct. 1, eventually knocking on 150,000 doors, in addition to making 650,000 calls and sending over a million text messages. 

Other organizations focused primarily on virtual or non-face-to-face outreach. Mi Familia Vota, for instance, made nearly 100,000 calls and sent more than 80,000 text messages to Latinos in Nevada on Election Day, while One APIA Nevada dropped literature in five Asian languages at 30,000 doors, in addition to making 180,000 phone calls and sending 6,000 text messages.

The Biden campaign, meanwhile, engaged in a mostly virtual campaign until the final three weeks, when it started in-person door knocking as well.

Combined, Democrats report knocking on more than 1.3 million doors across Nevada this election cycle, while the Trump campaign reported knocking more than 1.1 million.

"It is one thing to get the green light to go knock doors. It’s another to move an entire organization to really take on that challenge and do it in a way that’s safe,” said Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada State Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign director. “In 21 days, really, we were able to put together a massive door-knocking operation and lit-dropping operation across multiple counties to talk to voters that we didn’t have phone numbers for, that we hadn’t reached in the first two months of the campaign, including young people and people of color."

The Culinary Union, for its part, attributes its decision to knock doors so early to the conversations that it had with epidemiologists and industrial hygienists around workplace health and safety as it pushed for employee protection legislation in Carson City over the summer. Using that knowledge, union leaders established health and safety protocols canvassers had to adhere to while out in the field, including wearing masks, requiring those they spoke with to wear masks, and practicing social distancing.

 “We said if not us, who? There was no other who,” Taylor said. “We did what we do without a lot of bells and whistles and just did the work.”

The Culinary Union engaged in other kinds of voter outreach, too, sending emails and texts to 60,000 members, mailing 5.6 million mail pieces, making 2 million personal calls and 240,000 automated calls and running digital persuasion ads that racked up 11.6 million views — the kind of outreach that other organizations engaged in as well. 

But what set the union apart was the size and scope of its door-knocking operation. Taylor said that where the union’s typical contact rate at the door is usually 7 percent, it was more like 30 percent this year.

“I think that’s been proven over and over and over, and we know that it’s a three-legged stool to move folks,” Taylor said. “One, you have to have the TV stuff, two, you have to have the phone bank and text but, three, it’s the actual conversations with folks.”

Taylor, for his part, does not think Biden would have won Nevada without the Culinary Union.

“I know who we turned out and that was the difference in Washoe and Clark,” Taylor said. “I don’t think Joe Biden would’ve won and I don’t think a lot of Democrats would have won.”

Other Democrats in the state painted the election as a team effort, but acknowledged the decisive role that the union played not just in Biden’s victory but in key down ballot races as well, including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s tight re-election campaign in Senate District 6.

"If Culinary was not out there in a meaningful way starting in August, I think this race would’ve been a lot closer,” said Megan Jones, a longtime Democratic operative in the state. “I think we would’ve eked it out, but we may have lost Nicole’s seat and we would’ve probably lost a couple more Assembly seats."

Democrats believe that Nevada could have easily become the next Wisconsin or Michigan from 2016 if not for the investments in the Culinary Union, For Our Future and other organizations on the independent expenditure side of the campaign, in addition to the Biden campaign’s decision to put canvassers back on doors at the end of the race.

The Biden campaign acknowledges they wouldn’t have been able to win in Nevada if not for the help of those other Democratic-aligned organizations.

"You have to remember that it’s a team effort and that there is institutional knowledge and organizations, like the NV Dems, like the Culinary Union, have been building relationships with voters for many cycles,” said Alana Mounce, Biden’s state director in Nevada.

As far as the tight margin of victory in the presidential race in the state, it doesn’t come as a surprise to Democratic operatives who know Nevada well.

"We knew from very early on that this was going to be a close race. Nevada is a battleground state,” said state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a senior advisor on Biden’s Nevada team. “The margins haven’t been 5 to 10 point margins, they are 2 to 5 point margins, which means every vote really matters."

A group celebrates president elect Joe Biden's victory on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Around 50 people gathered at the Commercial Center in Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Republican gains down the ballot

While Democrats celebrate their success at the top of the ticket, it is Republicans who are finding reasons to be hopeful further down the ballot, including in the four legislative seats that Republicans were able to wrest from Democrats.

To some, it feels like a reset back to the way things were four years ago, before Democrats extended their reach in the last election. The only difference between the makeup in the Assembly this year is that Republicans picked up District 31, giving them one more seat than they had in 2016. In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans have the same split they did in 2016; they have just since swapped control of Senate Districts 5 and 9.

“From the Assembly Republican perspective, we’re happy where we’re at,” said Eric Roberts, executive director of the Assembly Republican Caucus. “We had four seats we were looking at picking up, and we got three of those.”

Perhaps the biggest upset, though, was Republican Carrie Buck’s victory over Democrat Kristee Watson in Senate District 5. Buck had run for the seat four years ago against state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, the term-limited incumbent, and lost by 0.9 percentage points. 

This year, Buck won by 0.5 percentage points, even as the two Assembly districts nested beneath the seat swung for Democrats. Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen won her re-election bid in Assembly District 29 by 2.5 percentage points, while newcomer Elaine Marzola won her election in Assembly District 21 by 3.9 percentage points.

“We were fortunate Carrie Buck decided to run again. She ran four years earlier, and it was a close election,” said Greg Bailor, executive director of the Senate Republican Caucus. “Carrie has deep roots in that district being an educator and she really campaigned hard and was able to talk to Democrats and nonpartisans in a way that helped gain that support in the district.”

In many ways, the Republican pickups in the Legislature mirror what happened at the national level, where Democrats lost several key House races to Republicans that they had picked up two years ago.

“Democrats won too much in 2018, if you will. They got farther out than they probably should’ve because there was so much energy on the Democratic side,” said David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV. “In 2020, you didn’t see that. They lost ground or held their own.”

Democrats, for their part, aren’t entirely shocked they weren’t able to replicate their successes from 2018, though the losses still sting. Jones said that, in looking at the data, it is “abundantly clear” that nonpartisans in Clark County did not break for Democrats.

“We're up in Clark County by the amount of Democrats that voted essentially, which means nonpartisans were a wash or we lost a few,” Jones said.

Republicans are also celebrating their successes in Washoe County, including in Senate District 15, where Gansert was able to fend off a challenge from a newcomer Democrat, Wendy Jauregui-Jackins. Gansert won by 3.6 percentage points when Biden won the county by 4.5 percentage points.

“Washoe County as a whole has seen growth and a lot of that growth has come from new constituents and voters that are a little bit more moderate,” Bailor said. “Senator Gansert does have a track record in the community and with her constituents, but she had to reintroduce herself to voters.”

Still, Gansert’s victory this year was narrower than her 11 percentage point victory in 2016, which has some Republicans worried about their prospects down the ballot there moving forward. 

“The trend in Washoe is concerning,” Roberts said. “As a Republican, we have to look at that and say, what’s happening here?” 

There is also one down-ticket race that political operatives believe was likely specifically affected by the pandemic. Assemblyman Skip Daly, a Democrat, has earned a reputation cycle after cycle for his relentless doorknocking that has allowed him to represent a Republican-leaning district for eight of the last 10 years. But, because of the pandemic, he didn’t door-knock this cycle, and former Assemblywoman Jill Dickman, a Republican, bested Daly by 3.5 percentage points in their fourth head to head in Assembly District 31.

“It’s as close as you can get to a control group of a comparative analysis. Same candidate, same campaign management, it’s the same basic everything from 2018 to 2020,” said Riley Sutton, a Democratic consultant in Washoe County who managed Daly’s race. “The only difference is who is at the top of the ticket and if we knocked doors or we didn’t. Skip didn’t knock doors.”

In the two competitive congressional districts, Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford both faced tighter contests this year than they did in 2018. Lee won by 3 percentage points this year, compared the 9.1 point margin she won by two years ago, while Horsford won by 4.9 points after winning by 8.2 points in 2018.

Republicans attribute the closeness both in the presidential race and down ballot elections, in part, to the decreased Democratic field operation this cycle.

“There still wasn’t the Democrat presence on the doors that I had seen in the past,” Roberts said. “Even when there was, it almost had more of a feel of a lit drop. I didn’t see any Democratic operatives out knocking doors. In past cycles I’ve always seen that.”

But they also point to the successes of an enhanced field operation that they say was boosted by the fact that Chris Carr, a Republican operative with deep ties to Nevada, was political director for the Trump Victory organization this cycle. They also highlight that the Republican operation in Nevada has now existed continuously for four years instead of getting reset cycle after cycle.

“I would say this was the largest field program we’ve had,” Bailor said. “Prior to 2020, 2018 was the largest, and 2016 was the largest before that. We’ve continued to build on that.”

The Trump campaign declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing legal fights. Though it has yet to file a new legal challenge in court since the election, the outcome of any legal battle, even if favorable for the Trump campaign, is unlikely to change the results of the presidential election in Nevada because of Biden’s relatively wide margin of victory in the state. Any legal action could, however, potentially affect close down ballot races.

Trump aside, Republicans believe they’re well-situated headed into the 2022 election, where there will be a competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial election in Nevada.

"Republicans won some close races and Democrats won some close races. I think both sides did a really good job and ran good campaigns,” Ernaut said. “The biggest difference was in the last four cycles the Republicans really hadn’t. They really didn’t have much of a ground game and this time they did — and had a good one."

Jan Moody during the GOP watch party at the South Point Hotel on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Voter turnout

The biggest puzzle that remains about the election in Nevada isn’t why Biden won or why Republicans succeeded down ballot: It’s why even more voters didn’t turn out to the polls in such a high-interest election and with voting easier than ever before with mail ballots sent to every active registered voter this cycle.

That’s not to say that turnout isn’t significantly up: Turnout in Clark County was about 80 percent this cycle, after subtracting about 75,000 inactive voters who should have been removed from the county’s voter rolls, about 5 percent higher than it was in 2016. Washoe County’s voter turnout was about 83 percent this year, up from 80 percent four years ago, while statewide turnout was about 81 percent, up from 77 percent in the last presidential election.

While those numbers are high, they’re not as high as perhaps some had expected.

“When we came out of the blocks this time with the mail and early voting and numbers were coming in, there was a question of, ‘Could we get to 90 percent turnout?'” Roberts said. “Instead, I think we just saw a pretty major shift in how people vote.”

Democrats had predicted a turnout of about 1.4 million based on vote enthusiasm and turnout in past presidential cycles, which ended up being correct with just a little more than 1.4 million ballots cast in the election. 

“Given the challenges Nevada faced in terms of the economic downturn and the pandemic, I don't think it's surprising that we didn't exceed that expectation,” Lambe said.

Damore, the political science professor at UNLV, additionally noted that the best predictors of turnout are residential stability, age and education, factors that don't bode particularly well for high turnout in Nevada.

“It’s just part of our culture,” Damore said. “This isn’t a civic engagement state.”

Another possible reason that the voter turnout percentage wasn’t even higher this year is because there were simply more registered voters who weren’t actually interested in participating in the election, since, for the first time this year, Nevada offered automatic voter registration at the DMV. About 57.4 percent of the voting age eligible population cast ballots in Nevada in 2016, according to the United States Election Project, compared to about 65.3 percent in 2020.

As far as why more people didn’t participate on Election Day, Roberts speculates that there just weren’t that many people left who wanted to vote.

“I think people were fearful of the long lines they saw in the primary, which wasn’t an apples to apples comparison,” Roberts said. “I think people prepared for that.”

And while mail ballots split essentially two to one in favor of Democrats this election cycle — largely the result of Democrats encouraging voters to take advantage of mail voting while Trump cast doubt on the integrity of the process — political observers say there’s no reason it needs to be that way in elections moving forward. 

"Everybody has the same opportunity to vote, whether it’s mail ballot or traditional absentee or early voting or Election Day. It shouldn’t favor any party. It’s a matter of your strategy, your organization,” Ernaut said. “If one party did better than another in those areas, it’s either because they worked harder or had a better strategy."

The other surprise was the fact that roughly an equal number of Republicans and Democrats took advantage of the state’s new same-day voter registration law, which was passed during the 2019 legislative session. The policy was expected to offer a boost to Democrats, and was staunchly opposed by Republicans, though in the end 22,701 Democrats and 22,886 Republicans took advantage of the same-day registration process this year.

"Whether or not this cycle proves that those who utilize same day weren’t necessarily our voters, I think in the long term same-day registration benefits democracy by expanding turnout,” Jones said.

A voter returns his ballot card in Sun City Summerlin on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Looking forward

For those who know Nevada well, the close election results this year don’t come as a surprise. Greg Ferraro, a Republican consultant in Washoe County, recalled working on President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign when he won Nevada by only 21,500 votes, or 2.6 percentage points, over John Kerry.

“It’s not new that these races continue to be close because Nevada still, I think, is fairly evenly divided despite some of the registration differences,” Ferraro said.

Democrats, however, are still considering this year largely a blue wall year.

“There was no blue wave in 2020 anywhere — in fact, quite the opposite,” Lambe said. “Nevada became part of the Blue Wall that secured a Democratic presidential win against increased turnout and enthusiasm for Trump.”

All the same, Republicans are optimistic.

“I think it was going to be a big lift to completely flip the state,” Bailor said. “So to then see the Nevada Legislature hold Republican seats and pick up seats, I would have to say in Carson City it’s not a wave but we definitely got some Republicans down ticket.”

If this election cycle proved anything, though, it’s that it’s not enough for Republican running statewide to run up the ballot count in the state’s ruby red rural counties if they continue to lose by a wide margin in Clark County and a still sizable margin in Washoe County, as they did in the presidential election this year.

The challenge for Republicans, then, moving forward is to somehow translate those down ballot wins into statewide victories. If they can’t find a way to win across the state, the blue wall will continue.

“The question is where their next statewide candidate is coming from,” Damore said. “They’re going to be in that problem of the primaries, the Dean Heller dance that fell flat in 2018. What’s going to happen in 2022? Are you going to put more hardcore Trump folks in statewide races with Catherine Cortez Masto? That’s probably not going to go well.”

As blue as Nevada has been in recent elections, though, this election served as a reminder to still expect the unexpected.

"Nevada works better when it works like this, when it’s not so partisan and not so polarized,” Ernaut said. “Everyone, regardless of whether their candidate won or lost, should feel a lot better about this election than they have about any of the last few."

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the May Museum at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

No buffets, providing masks for guests among union’s recommendations for casino reopening

The parent organization of the Culinary Union has developed a detailed set of safety guidelines it wants to see implemented before casinos reopen to the public — and they are significantly more rigorous than the general recommendations offered by state gaming regulators.

The six-page checklist released by UNITE HERE at a virtual press conference on Tuesday recommends everything from offering surgical masks for all guests to wear in public places to offering contactless tipping options and offering staff company-funded tests to determine a person’s current and past COVID-19 status.

“The health and safety of both workers and casino guests is our union’s top priority, which is why UNITE HERE consulted with public health professionals and industrial hygiene experts to develop a set of health and sanitation guidelines for gaming facilities,” UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor said in a statement. “The casino companies need to work with us to ensure a healthy and safe environment when casinos re-open, and if they won’t, the gaming regulators of the states in which they operate must take action.”

Casinos were declared non-essential businesses and ordered closed in mid-March. Gov. Steve Sisolak has said the Nevada Gaming Control Board will have to approve any plans for casinos to reopen, and that they wouldn’t be opening at the beginning of “Phase 1” — a period that is expected to begin around May 15 if health metrics show the virus subsiding.

The Gaming Control Board issued guidance on Friday laying out baseline safety measures it expects from casinos seeking to reopen. Those include promoting social distancing, such as by thinning out chairs around gaming tables, and keeping nightclubs and dayclubs closed until further notice.

UNITE HERE is making even more specific recommendations. They include:

  • Not compelling employees to come to work if COVID-19 has been detected within 14 days in the state, and not challenging their claim to unemployment benefits if they stay home in “involuntary layoff” status
  • Installing plexiglass sneeze/cough guards at front desks
  • Suspending buffets
  • Turning off some slot machines or reconfiguring them so players can remain six feet apart
  • Performing non-invasive temperature screenings of guests and employees at entrances, and turning away guests who have temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees, unless there is evidence such as a doctor’s note that it’s because of a non-communicable condition
  • Replacing high-touch items such as menus and salt and pepper shakers with disposable alternatives
  • Avoiding use of vacuums, but steam-cleaning carpets upon checkout with temperatures of at least 160 degrees
  • Using non-touch timeclocks to track employee attendance

Read the full document here.

Goodman says she offered using Las Vegas as 'control group' for coronavirus, drawing criticism from governor, elected officials and union

In a freewheeling CNN interview that contradicted messages from state public health officials, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said she offered to let the City of Las Vegas be used as a “control group” to determine whether social distancing procedures were effective.

Goodman’s comments came despite repeated warnings from federal, state and county health officials that opening businesses too quickly or removing social distancing measures all at once could lead to a far greater number of deaths from coronavirus and place burdens on the medical system. 

Goodman called the 150 deaths in Clark County a “tragic loss,” but she said, when balancing that against the fact that the county’s population is about 2.3 million, it was time to open up the economy and lift orders requiring businesses to close. 

When CNN host Anderson Cooper suggested to Goodman, with a follow-up question, that social distancing likely played a role in lowering the total number of deaths, she responded: “How do you know until we have a control group? We offered to be a control group.”

She said that her offer was turned down, and that she was told by the city’s statistician that she could not do that because workers in the city come from across Southern Nevada.

“I said ‘Oh that’s too bad,” Goodman said. “Because I know when you have a disease, you have a placebo [group] — that gets the water and the sugar — and then you get those who actually get the shot. We would love to be the placebo side so you have something to measure against.”

Goodman’s jurisdiction does not include the Las Vegas Strip, one of many swaths of the city legally a part of unincorporated Clark County and therefore governed by the Clark County Commission. Goodman, who is 81, has served as mayor since 2011. Goodman’s comments on Wednesday mirror similar comments she has made since the business closures started.

Goodman also said Cooper was “being an alarmist” when he suggested that Las Vegas casinos could be a “petri dish” should they reopen amid the pandemic. When asked how gaming floors should go about enforcing social distancing requirements, Goodman said she believed that there should be social distancing but “that’s up to them to figure out.”

“I don’t own a casino, I don’t know anything about building a casino,” Goodman said. 

Goodman went on to explain that because she is not a “private owner” of a hotel or casino, it should be left to the “competition” and private industry to devise specific guidelines structured around reopening. 

“We’re in a crisis, health-wise, and so for a restaurant to be open or for a small boutique to be open, they better figure it out,” Goodman said. “That’s their job, that’s not the mayor’s job.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak, local elected officials, including members of her council, and the leadership of the Culinary Union, criticized Goodman for her “control group” comments. 

In an interview with Cooper Wednesday evening, Sisolak addressed them directly, saying he would “not allow the citizens of Nevada… to be used as a control group or a placebo.”

During the brief CNN interview, the governor emphasized that he was listening to the advice of medical experts and statisticians to determine when and how casinos could resume businesses.

“We’re going to do it right,” Sisolak said. “But I’m not going to allow our workers to be put in a position where they have to decide between their job and their paycheck and their life. That’s not a fair position to put them in, and I will not allow that to happen.”

In a statement Wednesday, Geoconda Arguello Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union, condemned the comments as “outrageous considering essential frontline workers have been dealing with the consequences of the crisis firsthand.” Eleven union members have died of COVID-19.

The international president for Culinary’s parent union, UNITE HERE, went as far as to suggest that the mayor resign. In a tweet, D. Taylor wrote that “politicians who view our members as experimental pawns are disgusting and should resign.”

The mayor also received criticism from Las Vegas City Councilman Brian Knudsen who said in a statement that the mayor “does not speak for all of us,” and he supports Sisolak’s approach.

“Reopening the city or Clark County NV now is reckless and completely contrary to the overwhelming consensus of medical experts,” Knudsen said.

Blowback came from Washington D.C. too. Democratic Congresswoman Dina Titus released a statement stressing the need to heed the advice of scientists and to continue sheltering in place.

“Businesses in Las Vegas will only be able to recover if we take this pandemic seriously,” Titus said. “The mayor does not represent the Las Vegas Strip, literally or figuratively.”

Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who chairs the Clark County Commission, the local entity responsible for representing the Las Vegas Strip, responded through the Clark County twitter account.

“I understand that people are frustrated, but we must be patient. If we’re not patient, then we risk a lot more sicknesses, a lot more deaths and we risk the very real danger of our health care system being overwhelmed,” Kirkpatrick said. “None of us who have been engaged in this conversation want to risk that and we certainly don’t want to be a “control group” for some out-of-left-field school science project.”

Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, in a tweet, said: "We are living in the midst of a dangerous public health crisis that NEEDs to be taken very seriously. I condemn @MayorGoodman's comments about using our community as an experiment."

Update: This story was updated at 6:35 p.m. on Wednesday, April 22 to include comments from elected officials and the Culinary Union.

Klobuchar, Buttigieg tout union-friendly health plans to Culinary members

Union members in red shirts at a town hall event

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg found a receptive crowd waiting for them Saturday morning at the Culinary Union’s headquarters in Las Vegas, where they touted proposals that would allow union members to keep their hard-fought health insurance plans.

Choice was the primary pitch from the two Democratic presidential hopefuls to union workers, who have now hosted a total of six Democratic presidential hopefuls at a series of town halls over the last two months. Where some of their more progressive opponents support plans that would move all Americans under one, government-funded plan, what’s known as Medicare for all, both Klobuchar and Buttigieg promised union members that they would have the option to either stay on their health plan or join a government plan, what’s known as a public option, under their health care proposals.

Members of the Culinary Union have been fiercely defensive of their health plan, known as a union health trust and which they’ve negotiated for over several decades, and union leaders have signaled that candidates’ positions on health care will be key in deciding who they ultimately decide to endorse. 

The union’s parent, UNITE HERE, plans to meet at the end of the month to decide whether to endorse as a national organization, and, if not, the union is likely to endorse as a local, Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline told The Nevada Independent on Saturday.

“When we have something like [Medicare for all], that’s going to be very difficult for the members. They never will accept that because health care is peace of mind,” Arguello-Kline said. “The members, we know how much they’ve been fighting for, and we know how much they really care because they feel like they have the best health care in Nevada.”

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a UNITE HERE Culinary Union Town Hall meeting on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Klobuchar, who has served in the Senate since 2007, voted in favor of the landmark Affordable Care Act. But she acknowledged to Culinary Union members that the law “wasn’t perfect” during the town hall, alluding to concerns over a tax on high-cost health plans loathed by some unions, including the Culinary.

“I said it from the beginning. It wasn’t perfect for some of the union health care plans. We have now fixed that, but it wasn’t perfect,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar said that instead of all the work spent on the law going “down the drain,” she wants to make it better.

“Some of my colleagues, I know they mean well, but in Minnesota we’ve got a lot of lakes, 10,000 some lakes. We always say if you want to cross the water you build a bridge, you don’t blow one up,” Klobuchar said. “I think when you look at your interests of your family, and you look at all of your health plans and what your union has worked so hard to negotiate for you. We do not want to take those benefits away. We do not want to blow those up.”

Buttigieg, who also supports a public option, took the same tack with the union crowd, even pre-empting the anticipated health care question during his opening remarks.

“Now there are a lot of folks that don’t have the benefit of organized labor and union participation, and that’s one of the reasons why we got to set up that public alternative, that quality public alternative,” Buttigieg said. “I believe if it’s the best answer for everybody, well, then everybody will choose it anyway … This is something that you have fought for and earned and bargained in order to get. We can’t put that in jeopardy.”

Union members pressed the two candidates about what they would do to keep the country away from war, in light of the recent U.S. strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated by launching missiles at two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq last week, appearing to escalate the conflict and raising questions about whether the countries are on a path to war.

Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg answers a questions during a UNITE HERE Culinary Union Town Hall meeting on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Buttigieg, who served in the Navy in Afghanistan, promised that he would never put service members in harm’s way unless there was no other alternative and criticized President Donald Trump for rushing into the decision to launch the strike that killed Soleimani without taking proper steps.

“Does anybody really think that this president read all of the intelligence reports, checked with leadership from both parties in Congress, consulted with our allies, thought through all the moves?” he said. “Absolutely not. He didn’t know any of that. And now we see one of the most dangerous places in the world becoming even more dangerous.”

Klobuchar had a similar response, criticizing Trump for ordering the strike without consulting Congress.

“I pledge to you that when I am president I will go to Congress,” Klobuchar said. “This president seems to flaunt our laws, make decisions without even consulting the leaders in Congress, which is what just happened."

The candidates also addressed questions on immigration, promising to establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The Culinary Union’s members hail from 178 countries and speak more than 40 different languages.

Klobuchar shared a story about a family in Minnesota, who were Muslim, who were out eating dinner at a restaurant when they were told to “go home to where you came from.”

“The little girl looks up at her mom and she said, ‘Mom, you said that we could eat out tonight. I don’t want to go home and eat dinner.’ Think of the innocent words of that child,” Klobuchar said, to applause from the crowd. “She could have been any of your children. She only knows one home, and that is your state, that is my state, that is the United States of America.”

Later, Buttigieg shared with the union crowd how immigrants had contributed to the growth of his city.

“If it weren’t for the contributions of people who come to this country, we would not be growing at all,” Buttigieg said. “If you took out immigration, we would be a shrinking city.”

Both candidates additionally made some union-specific appeals during their respective town halls. Klobuchar pitched herself as “a granddaughter of a union member, an iron ore miner, the daughter of a union member, newspaper, the daughter of a union member, a teacher, and a candidate for president of the United States,” while Buttigieg took time during his opening address to take a shot at Station Casinos, which the Culinary Union has locked horns with in their efforts to unionize the company’s properties over the last couple of years.

“But when Station Casinos refuses to bargain and recognize Culinary workers, that is not only immoral, that is unlawful and it diminishes the freedom of those workers,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg twice showed off his fluency in Spanish for the largely immigrant-heavy union, many of whose members are native Spanish speakers.

Billionaire Tom Steyer will participate in the seventh Culinary Union town hall next week. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out of the race in December, all attended town halls with union members over the last two months.

Thousands of Culinary workers keep the Strip running. Now, Democratic presidential hopefuls need their help too.

The attendees at a Culinary Union event all wearing red shirts

They make your bed and tidy your room. They pour your drinks. They cook your food. They carry your bags.

They’re also the ones who could help determine the next Democratic presidential nominee, and, by extension, the next president of the United States.

They are the members of the Culinary Union Local 226.

If the Strip is the heart of Las Vegas, the members of the Culinary Union are the blood that flows in its veins. The union’s 60,000 members hail from 178 countries, speak more than 40 different languages and are predominantly women. 

They’re guest room attendants, cocktail and food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks, bartenders, laundry and kitchen workers, and they’re also known for their organizing prowess. They helped Harry Reid win a close U.S. Senate race in 2010, and, though the union stayed officially neutral ahead of Nevada’s 2016 Democratic presidential caucus, attendees of caucus sites on the Las Vegas Strip — designed to reach casino workers — overwhelmingly broke for Hillary Clinton, helping buoy her to victory in the state.

Now, they’re preparing to potentially make waves in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The president of the union’s national affiliate, UNITE HERE, said the union hopes to endorse on a national level ahead of the Feb. 22 caucus in Nevada, where the union’s support stands to make the biggest dent.

That’s why three Democratic presidential hopefuls trekked to the union’s Las Vegas headquarters this week — to court that coveted caucus vote. In an industrial pocket just north of the Stratosphere, hundreds of red-shirted union members filled chairs and stood in the back of the white-walled union hall to hear the candidates make their pitches and, perhaps more importantly, make their own pitches to the candidates.

There are a lot of issues on the minds of Culinary Union members this election, immigration, the economy and protections for labor, among them. But there is one that rises above them all — health care.

Roughly 130,000 Culinary members and their families are insured under a special kind of union health trust called the Culinary Health Fund. The plan is paid into by employers for each hour worked by their employees, and the fund is jointly administered by a board with equal employer and union representation.

Union members also have a state-of-the-art health center in East Las Vegas where they can receive concierge-style health care in a building that feels more like a Las Vegas resort than a health clinic. Urgent care is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Labs and radiology can be performed on site. Generic prescription drugs are free.

Democratic presidential candidates complain of a broken health care system. But the Culinary Union’s health plan is the rare example of something that’s actually working.

“They all are looking for how to protect their health care,” Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said in an interview after the final town hall with former Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday. “They heard the message from Senator Warren, the message from Senator Sanders and the message from the vice president, and they all are going to come to their conclusion.”

Just what conclusion that might be is anyone’s guess.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the UNITE HERE Culinary Union Town Hall in Las Vegas on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders faced tough questions from union members at the town halls concerning their Medicare for all proposals, which would implement a single-payer, government-run health insurance system and, on its face, eliminate the plan that the union has bargained for over decades. 

Warren, at a town hall Monday night, didn’t directly address that latter point. Instead, she told members of the Culinary Union that she was “just totally knocked out” after she toured their health center earlier in the day. 

“What you experience, what you count on for yourself and your family [isnt’] supposed to change,” she told them. 

What would change, she said, is that the “1 percent” and big corporations would pay for their health care.

The following morning, Sanders was a bit more direct. The Vermont senator told union members Tuesday that his Medicare-for-all plan would save their employers $12,000 per employee, per year, savings that would be required to flow back into workers’ pockets. The union audience applauded, despite heckling from a small contingent in the back who shouted “union health care, union health care.”

Biden, the third candidate to visit the union this week and the only one who doesn’t support Medicare for all, received enthusiastic applause when he declared that Culinary Union members would be able to keep their health plan if he becomes president.

“Here’s the big thing: Where I come from, I don’t like people telling me what I have to choose,” Biden said. “So, 160 million people who have busted their neck, walked down picket lines, gave up pay, took hits in order to get significant health care coverage, you get to keep it under my plan. You don’t have to give it up.”

But Biden had an entirely different health care issue to contend with that is also an existential threat to the union’s health plan — a 40 percent tax on high-cost health plans like the Culinary Union’s that was a key funding mechanism in the Affordable Care Act. The former vice president was a critical booster of the federal health care law when it was working its way through Congress a decade ago, and his health care plan today is built around enhancing the law rather than replacing it entirely as some of his opponents favor.

Biden, asked by a union member whether he will support the tax as president, framed the issue as essentially a moot point by the time he gets into office. The House voted to repeal the tax, which never went into effect, earlier this year, and he said he was “confident” that Republicans would soon finish the job in the Senate as part of their overall efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. He also said he is counting on other funding mechanisms to fill the gap created by the repeal of the tax.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, right, listens while Barbie Tivas, a worker with Green Valley Ranch Resort, Spa & Casino, asks a question during the UNITE HERE Culinary Union Town Hall in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

But none of those three answers on health care entirely resolved the concerns of union members, leaders say.

“Oh, no,” UNITE HERE President D. Taylor said in an interview on Wednesday. “I think we have to have obviously a lot more, because I think like most Americans, we’re just digging into this, and we’re not policy wonks.”

The clock is ticking, though. Only 73 days remain until Nevada’s Democratic caucus, which is the first-in-the-West presidential nominating contest and the third behind Iowa and New Hampshire.

Taylor said the endorsement process isn’t actually that complicated, though they try to be democratic.

“What has happened in the past is the executive committee of the union has made a decision on that, and that’s really it,” Taylor said.

He said conversations about the union’s endorsement are ongoing — most recently at a union meeting last week in Houston — and will continue at another meeting in January. Asked whether they have time to get it done, Taylor didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely we can get it done.”

It is unclear to what extent candidates’ positions on Medicare for all will factor into the union’s endorsement. While the Culinary Union has a robust health plan, other national affiliates of UNITE HERE do not, and friends and extended family members of Culinary Union members might not either.

“We're trying to get to a UNITE HERE endorsement that covers locals from Miami to Seattle. It's complicated. People have different viewpoints,” Taylor said. “I mean just in this room we have airline catering workers who don't have health insurance, so some of this stuff sounds great. We have some members here who love their insurance. So even within our union people have different perspectives.”

For the Culinary Union leadership, the issue is a bit more black and white.

“I think that the members were really happy. You heard everybody clap,” Arguello-Kline said, referring to the moment when Biden declared that union members would be able to keep their health plan. “I think they were all looking for an answer like that, and I think, well you saw the room got really excited about that.”

And the excitement of the room matters. In 2008, the union endorsed Barack Obama, but Hillary Clinton won seven of the nine at-large caucus sites on the Strip — meaning that the rank-and-file union members had balked at their leaders’ endorsement.

Sanders roused the crowd early on in his town hall with a long list of adjectives about President Donald Trump that turned into a call-and-response with the crowd.

“Pathological liar,” he said.

“Yes!” they chanted.

“Corrupt,” he said.

“Yes!” they responded.

“Racist,” he said.

“Yes!” they responded.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the UNITE HERE Culinary Union Town Hall in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The former vice president paced intently around the room during his event, staring deeply into the eyes of those asking him questions and earning bouts of applause mixed with the intense silence of a crowd rapt with attention.

Warren energized the crowd at moments, such as when she laid into Station Casinos, the company whose properties the Culinary Union has been trying to unionize since 2016, by calling them out as an example of who “Washington is working great” for and called for employee representation on corporate boards. Otherwise, she largely struggled to gain traction with the union crowd.

“I grew up out in Oklahoma. Dead silent. No Okies out there? Okay,” she said, to some laughs from the crowd as she began her introduction.

It’s not necessarily that union members didn’t like her — they may not know her yet. Of the three, she’s the only one who hasn’t run for president and has the least name recognition. She also still isn’t well known by voters of color in Nevada, and the Culinary Union is 54 percent Latino, 15 percent Asian and 10 percent black.

But, as Taylor noted, that’s why the union hosted the three town halls this week. It’s still early, and union members are just now starting to pay attention to the Democratic field in earnest, he said.

“It's been great for our members that they got exposure, they started asking questions and also they started relaying to the candidates what's important to them,” Taylor said. “It's a process.”

Indy 2020: Warren, Sanders and Biden return to Nevada to court the Culinary Union

Culinary Union members cheer

Your Nevada 2020 election newsletter. Please read, forward and subscribe.

Good morning, and welcome to Indy 2020, a biweekly newsletter focused on the 2020 presidential election in Nevada. A reminder that email subscribers get early access to this newsletter, so be sure to subscribe and tell your friends. It’ll be peachy.

I know you’re probably tired of it, but I’m not. I’m not talking about the caucus. I’m talking about 2019’s greatest meme: Baby Yoda playing with the radio. I’m still not totally sold on “The Mandalorian.” I get the argument that it’s a classic Western set in space, and I can appreciate that. I just don’t know where the story is going yet and I really badly want to know. (Insert comment about impatient millennials here.)

However, what I am sold on is Baby Yoda — Baby Yoda listening to Queen. Baby Yoda going through an angsty Evanescence phase. Baby Yoda being SO READY for Christmas.

In other news, a programming note: A shorter Christmas Eve edition of this newsletter will come out on Dec. 24 and then we’ll be back after the New Year.

As always, a reminder to reach out to me with any tips, story ideas, comments, suggestions (and your favorite Baby Yoda radio meme) at

Without further ado, a download of the recent 2020 happenings in Nevada.


First in The Indy: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg will be back in Nevada on Dec. 20 and 21 after the Democratic presidential debate in California on Dec. 19. Details to come.

Warren kicks off latest series of Culinary town halls: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the latest candidate to visit the Culinary Union Monday night, addressing a crowd of a couple hundred workers at their union headquarters. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden will address the union this morning and on Wednesday morning, respectively.

The first question she was asked was about her health care plan. Warren lauded the union's health plan and health center — which she toured earlier in the day — but remained vague about whether the Culinary plan would continue to exist in the health care future she imagines. The crowd was enthusiastic at points — such as when she went after Station Casinos as an example of who “Washington is working great” for — but otherwise it was a relatively subdued audience for the Massachusetts senator, especially compared to the warm reception California Sen. Kamala Harris received when she was in town last month.

More on Warren's visit here.

Culinary endorsement before the caucus? D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary Union's parent union UNITE HERE, told me after the Warren town hall his hope is that the union will endorse — as a national union — before Nevada's Feb. 22 caucus. But he didn't say whether Medicare for all would be a litmus test. Those comments are also in the Warren story here.

Bernie in the north: Ahead of his Culinary Union visit, Sanders swung through Northern Nevada on Sunday and Monday. On Sunday, he held a rally at Elko High School, where he touched on a number of issues, including rural health care.

"So it may well be that an insurance company does not make a lot of profit in rural Nevada, you know? So what? The function of healthcare is to provide healthcare to people,” he said, according to CBS News’ Alex Tin.

He also came out against oil and gas drilling in the Ruby Mountains, which tower over Elko, in a statement Monday morning. (My colleague Daniel Rothberg has reported extensively on the issue.)

“Nevadans have resoundingly opposed any attempts to open the Ruby Mountains for oil and gas drilling, which would lead to the destruction of our public lands,” Sanders said. “Scientists have also been clear that in order to solve the climate crisis, we must leave fossil fuels in the ground. When we are in the White House, we will immediately end all new and existing fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands, including Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.”

Sanders also hosted rallies in Carson City and Reno on Monday. In Carson City, Sanders was thanked by a Navy veteran who had told the Vermont senator three months ago at the campaign rally that he wanted to kill himself because of his struggle with Huntington’s disease and overwhelming medical bills. My colleague Michelle Rindels has more of his story here.

Kamala drops out: Harris dropped out of the presidential race, citing financial constraints. I just interviewed her a couple of weeks ago for our podcast, during which she told me she was “very much in the game.” She ran a good race here, though, had a team that knew Nevada well and received several endorsements from lawmakers here. She stopped by her Las Vegas office to say goodbye to her staff last week.

Latino group seeks specific commitments from candidates: I met with Hector Sanchez Barba, Mi Familia Vota’s new executive director and CEO, in Las Vegas last week. One of the organization’s biggest focuses right now, he told me, is getting presidential hopefuls on the record on immigration, and pressing them to lay out a specific roadmap for how and when they plan to implement the policies they have laid out on the trail.

“President Obama was the perfect example of lack of commitment on the issue of immigration, even though he promised that he was going to get it done in the first one hundred days,” he said. “We never saw him spending the political capital that the issue requires. He's a very sophisticated politician that if he wanted to make this a priority, he would have gotten it done.”

(He did note, however, that there was at least a relationship between the Obama administration and the Latino community, and said that the administration involved Latino leaders in discussions on a host of different issues.)

Sanchez Barba recorded the first of the organization’s presidential conversations with billionaire and Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer in Las Vegas last week.

“I'm going to be very strong in getting specific answers from the candidates on how they're planning to get us to the finish line on the priorities that are so critical for our community,” he said.

The organization is planning on turning some of what is gleaned from these interviews into a voter guide. Sanchez Barba also told me that though the organization has stayed away from endorsing in the past, it is still an ongoing conversation he is having with leaders at the national level.

Steyer’s post-Thanksgiving trip: In addition to meeting with Sanchez Barba, Steyer participated in a town hall with Hispanics in Politics, co-hosted a discussion with the League of Women Voters, toured Veterans Village and made other campaign stops in Pahrump and Henderson while in town the weekend after Thanksgiving. 

In Henderson, he touched on the recently-approved homeless ordinance in Las Vegas, though he also said that “no one from California can come to Nevada and start lecturing people about homelessness and how to solve it, because I think we're the center of homelessness,” according to CBS News’ Alex Tin.


App-based early voting and caucusing: The Nevada State Democratic Party released additional details about how technology will be integrated into the early voting and Caucus Day process. Early voters will be able to use an app downloaded onto party-purchased tablets stationed at early voting sites to cast their presidential preferences, and then those early votes will flow into a separate app that will be used by precinct chairs to run the actual process on Caucus Day. More on that from me here.

NextGen investing $1 million in Nevada: The progressive advocacy group NextGen America will spend $1 million on registering and turning out young people in 2020 in an effort to keep Nevada blue. The group, which was founded by Steyer, said it will focus on voter turnout ahead of the caucus but not in support of any specific candidate. Details here.

Impeachment could boost voter turnout: My colleague Humberto Sanchez looked into what effect the impeachment proceedings could have on the election in Nevada. Rep. Dina Titus, who recently endorsed Biden, told him that she thinks more people are going to turn out because of the impeachment proceedings “because they’re more fired up by what they’re hearing and what they will be hearing.”

Republicans think so too.

“All it has done is motivate Nevada Republicans to turn out in force to re-elect President Trump and hold Democrats up and down the ballot accountable next year,” Nevada Republican Party Executive Director Will Sexauer said in a statement.

More on that here.


Staffing changes and office openings

  • Warren will open her ninth campaign office in the state in Carson City on Saturday.
  • Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign has opened two additional offices in the state and hired Jenny Lehner as Nevada political director and Zachary Amos as Nevada field director. Lehner previously worked on Chris Giunchigliani’s gubernatorial campaign and Amos was the regional organizing director with Beto for America.
  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has hired Matthew DeFalco as his state director. DeFalco was previously Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s state director for his presidential campaign.
  • New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign has onboarded new organizers in Clark and Washoe counties, bringing the campaign’s staff to more than 20 in Nevada.

New endorsements

  • Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan has endorsed Biden for president, as has civil rights leader Dr. Robert Green.
  • The Clark County Black Caucus has endorsed Booker, though it has picked Sanders as its second choice candidate. (Second place actually matters in Nevada because of the realignment process that happens during the caucus should a candidate at a given precinct not reach a certain threshold of support to be considered a “viable” candidate.)
  • Phillip Washington, senior pastor of Promised Land Community Church and co-founder of the Nevada Faith and Health Coalition, has endorsed Warren.
  • Joe Oddo, past president of the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada, has endorsed Buttigieg.
  • For the latest on presidential endorsements, check out our tracker.

Upcoming candidate visits

  • Sanders and Biden will speak to Culinary Union members at town halls this morning and on Wednesday morning, respectively.
  • Sanders will attend a community meeting at St. Simeon Serbian Orthodox Church this afternoon.
  • Warren will hold a town hall at Truckee Meadows Community College this evening.
  • Yang will be back in Las Vegas on Sunday for a fundraiser at Mosaic Theater. There will be a cocktail reception followed by a high roller poker tournament with World Series Champions.
  • For the latest on presidential candidate visits, check out our visit tracker.

Surrogate stops

  • Delaware Sen. Chris Coons was in Nevada campaigning for Biden this weekend.
  • Michael Lighty, Sanders’ health care constituency director, hosted a Medicare-for-all tour over the weekend, which also included surrogates Jose La Luz and Brianna Westbrook, as well as Sanders Nevada Co-Chair Amy Vilela. Events on Saturday included canvass launches in Carson City, Reno and Henderson, a “Unidos con Bernie” conversation in Carson City, a Medicare-for-all forum at UNR and a LGBTQIA+ happy hour at Hamburger Mary’s in Las Vegas. On Sunday, the team also hosted another canvass launch in East Las Vegas, a LGBTQIA+ Medicare-for-all town hall at the Clark County Library, a “Salud y Trabajo” roundtable with Mi Familia Vota and SEIU 1107 in Las Vegas and a happy hour at Milo’s Cellar in Boulder City.
  • California Assemblywoman and California Legislative Latino Caucus Chair Lorena Gonzalez will campaign for Warren in Las Vegas on Sunday. She’ll attend a canvass kickoff at Warren’s East Las Vegas office and later headline a house party with Latinx activists, caucusgoers and community leaders.
  • John Bessler, husband of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, will be making his first surrogate visit to Las Vegas on Dec. 20 and 21.

Other election news

  • Three former Nevada State Democratic Party chairs who have endorsed Biden Roberta Lange, Sam Lieberman and Adriana Martinez — have cut a video touting their support for the former vice president.
  • Yang’s campaign started sending out rather elaborate mail pieces — there is a pocket and a “MATH” sticker — around Thanksgiving to Nevadans.
  • The Klobuchar campaign, which recently staffed up in Nevada, began hosting organizing events last week.
  • Steyer’s campaign held a community Healthlink fair in partnership with the Asian Community Resource Center on Friday, planted 10 fruit trees at the Vegas Roots Community Garden on Saturday and invited the community to a play of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at the Steyer headquarters on Sunday.
  • Booker’s millennial engagement director is coming into town for a few events this week, including a young leaders happy hour on Thursday. The campaign is also continuing to do volunteer caucus trainings in English and Spanish and will be officially launching its Spanish caucus program this week.
  • Buttigieg released a video last week calling on Station Casinos to negotiate with workers who have voted to join the Culinary Union.


Impeachment in CD3: A poll by a conservative nonprofit organization linked to House Republicans found that voters in the swingy 3rd Congressional District will be less likely to vote for freshman Democratic Rep. Susie Lee if she continues to back the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. My colleague Riley Snyder has the details.


  • Harris Reid at a brokered convention? (The Atlantic)
  • Does Mayor Pete have a Latino problem? (Politico)
  • Candidates try to appeal to non-white voters in Nevada (Las Vegas Sun)

Warren tells Culinary Union members ‘experience’ of their union health care won’t change under her Medicare-for-all plan

Warren in red with a union member

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Monday that she was “just totally knocked out” during a tour of the politically powerful Culinary union’s health facility, but she remained vague about whether the labor organization's Cadillac-standard health plan would continue to exist under the health care future she envisions for the country.

Warren, whose comments came during an evening town hall, told union members “what you experience, what you count on for yourself and your family [isn’t] supposed to change” under the single-payer, government-run health care plan she backs, often referred to as Medicare for all. What would change, she told them, is how it’s paid for.

“Because here's my bottom line about this,” Warren said. “We need to ask those at the very top, the top 1 percent, the big corporations — my personal favorite — the tax cheats, to kick in a little more, so we can afford health care for everybody in this country.”

Warren is the second Democratic presidential hopeful the union has hosted at its Las Vegas headquarters. The union could be pivotal in Nevada’s first-in-the West caucus on Feb. 22, and the president of its parent union told The Nevada Independent he hopes to endorse before then.

Although the Massachusetts senator told union members at the town hall that their experience wouldn’t change under her health plan, she didn’t directly say whether the actual plan — which union members have bargained for over many decades — would continue to exist. Instead, she touted their health plan as a model for the rest of the country.

“To me, what you’ve got is not something we want to make harder. What you got is something I want to see replicated all around America,” Warren said. “That’s what I’m looking for.’

Roughly 130,000 workers and their family members receive health insurance coverage through the Culinary Health Fund, a special union trust fund paid into by employers for each hour worked. Employer contributions are negotiated through the collective bargaining process, and the trust is administered by a board of trustees with equal employer and union representation.

In her introduction at the event, Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, stressed the sacrifices the union has made to get that health plan it has today.

“That sacrifice is an investment to protect our families and we can have peace in our mind when we are asleep and when people get sick in the middle of the night,” Arguello-Kline said. “We know we’re going to do everything we can to protect that health care.”

The issue of Medicare for all is a particularly fraught one for the politically powerful union, whose endorsement Democratic presidential hopefuls are clamoring for ahead of the state’s caucus. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will attend a town hall at the union’s headquarters on Tuesday morning, and former Vice President Joe Biden will attend a similar event on Wednesday. California Sen. Kamala Harris was the first to speak to the union last month, but dropped out of the race last week.

D. Taylor, international president of the Culinary Union’s parent union UNITE HERE, told The Nevada Independent in an interview after the event that his hope is that the union will endorse on a national level — meaning collectively as UNITE HERE — ahead of Nevada’s caucus.

“If we could, that would be great,” he said.

But he wouldn’t say whether candidates’ positions on Medicare for all would be a litmus test in the endorsement process.

“I don't know,” Taylor said. “I'm unclear about everybody's position and that's why we have these town hall meetings.”

Taylor said the union has expressed its concern to Warren over her support for Medicare for all but expressed some general hope that her plan “will get fleshed out some more.” Asked whether that means some union carveout under Medicare for all, Taylor said he doesn’t believe in that.

“I don't think that's fair,” he said.

Taylor did, however, jump in after Warren’s answer to say that the union does support health care reform overall.

“The health care system in this country has to change,” Taylor said. “Health care should be a right and not a privilege and no one should go without."

Some of Warren’s best-received moments of the event were when she touted the importance of strong unions and called out Station Casinos as an example of who “Washington is working great” for. The Culinary Union has been locked in a yearslong fight with Station Casinos in its attempt to unionize the company’s properties, beginning with Boulder Station in September 2016. Fiesta Henderson became the seventh Station Casinos property to vote to join the union in Las Vegas in September, but none of the properties have reached contract agreements with the company yet.

She asked the crowd what Station Casinos had gotten out of the 2017 tax bill backed by congressional Republicans and signed into law by the president.

“Does anybody know?” she said.

“A lot of friggin’ money,” Taylor chimed in.

Warren continued: “Why? Because Washington works for them.”

She also earned a round of applause for her proposal to allocate require large companies to have at least 40 percent of their board of directors selected by company employees. 

“At least we can have employees in the room and voting, I think that’s going to make a real difference,” Warren said.

But at other points, the crowd didn’t seem to resonate quite as well with the Massachusetts senator, including with her opening stump speech.

“I grew up out in Oklahoma. Dead silent. No Okies out there? Okay,” she said, to light chuckles from the crowd. (The Culinary Union is Nevada’s largest immigrant organization with members who hail from 178 countries.)

At points, she even asked the relatively subdued crowd to react, which it would, with a rousing chorus of applause.

“Can we hear it for America’s public school teachers?” she asked.

“Can I get an amen for that?” she asked later, talking about the country’s health care ills.

But she built steam throughout the town hall by returning to bread-and-butter issues for the union, including immigration and labor. She called for a pathway to citizenship for “yes, DREAMers, but not just DREAMers — we need grandmas, we need uncles, we need friends, we need neighbors, we need everybody out of the shadows and for a fair and achievable pathway to citizenship,” to applause from the crowd.

Asked how she would not just raise the minimum wage but help workers exceed it, Warren had a simple answer for the group.

“Make it easier to join a union and give unions more power when they negotiate,” she said.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, left, tours the Culinary Health Center in Las Vegas with Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Union Local 226, UNITE HERE President D. Taylor, and Ted Pappageorge, president of the Culinary Union Local 226, on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Harris touts union-friendly Medicare-for-all plan at town hall with powerful Culinary Union

California Sen. Kamala Harris lauded the Culinary Union’s hard-fought health insurance plan as “extraordinary” and promised that her version of Medicare-for-all wouldn’t take it away while at a town hall with the union’s members in Las Vegas on Friday night.

Harris, who has managed to thread the needle with her Medicare-for-all plan that would create a government-run health insurance system but also allow private insurers to compete within it, sought to draw a distinction between herself and more progressive presidential hopefuls who have proposed a single-payer health insurance system that would replace all existing insurance, including union plans. 

“The health coverage and the insurance you have negotiated and bargained and sacrificed to get, I will not take that away,” Harris said, to significant applause from the crowd of a couple hundred red-shirted union members. “And to put a fine point on it, so on the debate stage there are a lot of people talking about Medicare for all. Well, the difference between what they’re talking about and my policy, I’m not going to get rid of private insurance.”

Harris said that it was the Culinary Union in Nevada and its parent union UNITE HERE that helped her form her health care plan. 

Roughly 130,000 workers and their family members receive health insurance coverage under the Culinary Health Fund, a special kind of union trust fund paid into by employers for each hour worked. Employer contributions are negotiated through the collective bargaining process, and the trust is administered by a board of trustees with equal employer and union representation.

“I had you in mind because I know what you’ve given up to get that coverage,” Harris said.

While she stressed that her health care plan does not abolish private insurance, she also promised to rein in large insurance companies.

“Those insurance companies have been profiting off of public health for generations and they’ve been putting profit ahead of public health. That’s why you had to negotiate against them,” Harris said. “You got what you needed, but it's not like they just gave it.”

Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, highlighted the importance the union places on protecting its health care plan in her introduction of Harris, noting “the fight, the struggles, the civil disobedience, whatever we need to do to protect our health care.” 

The politically powerful union, which has a reputation for turning the tides of elections in Nevada, has not yet ruled out the possibility of endorsing a candidate who supports a single-payer health insurance system, though Arguello-Kline has stressed in previous interviews the difficulty of selling a candidate like that to her members. The union has also not yet indicated whether it plans to endorse ahead of Nevada’s Democratic caucus in February.

California Sen. Kamala Harris cheers with members of the Culinary Union during a town hall meeting in Las Vegas on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

At the town hall, the California senator also lauded the union for its work on drug pricing transparency, pushing for diabetes and asthma drug transparency bills in Nevada’s 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions, respectively.

“This is the leadership that you provided in the Nevada Legislature around insulin prices and transparency around drug prices. Right? Because you know that even though you have insurance you have to come out of pocket for so much money to buy insulin,” Harris said. “So we still have a lot of work to do.”

Harris blamed the lack of federal action on reining in the pharmaceutical industry on the absence of a certain anatomical feature among lawmakers.

“American pharmaceutical companies are charging people in this country more than they’re charging people in Canada for the same drugs. So then the question becomes how could that be? I'll tell you. Because those people in Washington D.C. don’t have any, um,” Harris said, pausing, as the crowd urged her to “say it.”

“Cojones,” she said, to enthusiastic applause from the crowd.

Harris highlighted two key elements of her plan to rein in the pharmaceutical industry for the crowd — setting prices for drugs based on what they cost in other countries, and taking away patents from companies that don’t “play by the rules” if their drug was developed as a result of federal research dollars.

“There are ways to do this and it is just literally it’s about what is humane, what is right,” Harris said.

Before Harris spoke to the union crowd, UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor gave a glowing summary of the California senator’s career standing up for labor. He noted how she had declined to be honored at a women’s leadership conference because it was being held at a Marriott — where the union was on strike at the time — praised her work on prescription drugs and highlighted her background as the daughter of two immigrants.

“She’s a really smart person. But she learned early on, unfortunately, in this country, even if you’re really smart, you got a real knowledge, if you are an immigrant, a woman, black, you got three strikes working against you,” Taylor said. “What you have to do, what she’s shown is you have to fight for who you are.”

D. Taylor, left, international president of UNITE HERE, introduces California Sen. Kamala Harris during town hall meeting with the Culinary Union in Las Vegas on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Harris praised the union at the beginning of her address for its electoral successes in Nevada, including electing Steve Sisolak as the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades.

“This particular union of all in the country has shown that when you empower and you give voice to the rank and file, when you pay attention to the voices of leadership among the rank and file and empower them in the way you done here with UNITE HERE, and the way you've done with the Culinary Workers 226, you win,” Harris said. “The first Democratic governor in 20 years has you to thank.”

She also took a shot at Station Casinos CEO Frank Fertitta during the event, after she was asked a question by a worker at Palace Station whether she would support a bill in Congress that would give the company a tax break. The Culinary Union has been locked in a yearslong with Station Casinos in its attempt to unionize the company’s properties, beginning with Boulder Station in September 2016. Fiesta Henderson became the seventh Station Casinos property to vote to join the union in Las Vegas in September, but none of the properties have reached contract agreements with the company yet.

“I’ve called Fertitta. I’ve weighed in on that. I'm with you on that,” Harris said. “I'm with you in terms of standing with the workers. What they've been doing at Station Casinos is wrong had I applaud your leadership. The Fertittas, they are paying less taxes, I bet, than you are paying.”

Harris reiterated to the crowd that her plans to immediately reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as well as expand the program to parents of the children in that program. Talking specifically about the upcoming 2020 Census, the California senator also told union members that President Donald Trump is “trying to make people afraid.”

“If we’re not counted, when they start drawing the lines for voting, we’ll be invisible,” Harris said. “Do not let them make us feel invisible. Do not let them make us fear.”

Harris was the first Democratic presidential hopeful the Culinary Union has formally hosted for a town hall, though a union spokeswoman said that more events are slated for later this year.