Resorts World unveiling ‘seems like an old-school Las Vegas resort opening’

The comparisons between the opening of Resorts World Las Vegas and the launch of The Mirage almost 32 years ago can’t be ignored.

Like its predecessor, the $4.3 billion Resorts World ends a decade-long lull of new Las Vegas Strip hotel-casino development. When it opened in 1989, The Mirage was the Strip’s first all-new casino resort in 15 years.

That’s where the similarities end, though.

Resorts World’ predecessor, Boyd Gaming’s Echelon project, was conceived at the apex of the Strip’s massive development phase in the mid-2000s, only to be halted 14 months after construction began as the Great Recession gripped the casino industry.

The site sat untouched for five years until Genting Berhad – the holding company for Malaysia-based Genting Group – acquired the property and added the Resorts World name. Construction started slowly in 2015 but didn’t kick-off in earnest until a few years later.

Thursday’s opening comes at an auspicious time in Las Vegas. The gaming industry has fully rebooted following 15 months of casino closures, operating restrictions and capacity limitations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism and gaming numbers have been picking up since March, and the Resorts World opening is creating a buzz.  

A private party will kick off the evening until the public is allowed in around 11 p.m. Resorts World’s communications team have teased the potential for celebrity appearances and social media influencers on opening night.

Truist Securities gaming analyst Barry Jonas found the 3,500-room hotel, casino and entertainment complex has the highest room rates on the Strip heading into next week’s July 4th holiday weekend.

The connections are not lost on Resorts World Las Vegas President Scott Sibella, a long-time MGM Resorts International executive who moved into his role in 2019, shortly after departing a similar position he held for eight years with MGM Grand Las Vegas.

“I wish I could say I was a smart guy and that I planned it this way. But we planned a summer 2021 opening last year, either way, hoping things were going to be better,” Sibella said.

When Resorts World activated its 100,000-square-foot LED screen on its west tower on Independence Day a year ago, providing a digital fireworks display for a Strip audience scaled down because of the pandemic, the interest took hold.

“In many ways, it seems like an old-school Las Vegas resort opening,” said Bo Bernhard, who grew up in Las Vegas and is now executive director of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute and the university’s vice president of economic development.

The difference, Bernhard said, is the company behind the project. Genting’s Resorts World brand and concept are new to the Strip. The company has seven integrated Resorts World properties, primarily in Asia, including Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore and Resorts World Genting in Malaysia.

“This is an entirely new company with new ideas, and in this case, global ideas. It’s tremendous expertise that will help grow this market,” Bernhard said.

A view of Resorts World Las Vegas from the West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center on the Strip. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Denstone Group CEO Oliver Lovat said Resorts World is “the most international property that has ever opened in Las Vegas.” The real estate advisor and casino industry consultant said American visitors won’t be disappointed.

“It is designed and structured for international visitors as well as the U.S. market in a way no other resort in Las Vegas has ever been built,” Lovatt said. “It’s a fusion of casino development from North America and Asia.”

Sibella cautioned that tapping the overseas Asian customer market, the bulk of Genting’s database, is challenging because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. It’s an issue for all Strip properties that have a large Asian customer connection.

“We have an edge from our properties over there (in Asia), but we know it won’t change overnight,” Sibella said. “My hope is it gets better by the end of the year, and we see the next Chinese New Year as a big celebration. But we’re not counting on that right away.”

More than just casinos

Genting was founded in 1965, and its first Resorts World property opened in Malaysia in 1971 as a 200-room hotel.

The company is more than just casinos. During a presentation to Nevada gaming regulators in May, Genting highlighted its place as a multinational conglomerate with energy, agriculture and real estate holdings in addition to its leisure and hospitality business. The company’s assets have an equity worth of $25 billion.

Global Market Advisors Partner Brendan Bussmann said New Yorkers recognize Resorts World’s gaming approach through its casinos in the Catskills and at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

“While the local leadership team has strong experience on the Strip, Resorts World is looking to make its own splash and be a competitive product in the resort corridor,” Bussmann said.

Resorts World Las Vegas and Hilton partnered to bring three of Hilton’s premium brands in Las Vegas Strip’s newest resort. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Quintessential megaresort

Resorts World Las Vegas is the first classic megaresort associated with the Strip’s growth in the three decades since The Mirage opened.

The 117,000 square foot casino will have 1,400 slot machines, 117 table games and a sportsbook. A high-end gaming area associated with Crockfords, a European gaming brand owned by Genting, is a part of the casino floor along with three 66th floor private gaming salons. Two other private gaming salons are on the fifth floor.

“Crockfords is an iconic brand for gamblers in the U.K.,” Lovatt said. “It will have an immediate resonance with the gaming customer.”

Last week, Resorts World announced it would be the first casino in Nevada to offer cashless gaming capabilities for slot machines, table games and sports betting, as well as non-gaming activities throughout the property, such as retail, restaurants and entertainment.

The casino partnered with five gaming technology providers in the effort.

Through a franchise agreement, Resorts World is utilizing Hilton Hotel’s brands, expertise, technology and the lodging company’s 115 million-member Hilton Honors program to fill the 3,500 rooms and suites.

All of Resorts World’s rooms are in the Hilton system under the Hilton name, the high-end Conrad brand or ultra-luxury LXR Hotels, which has been paired with Crockfords.

The property also will unveil the bulk of its 40 restaurants and beverage options, including an Asian street-themed food court. Resorts World’s five-and-half-acre pool deck and 300,000 square feet of convention and meeting space also are opening this week.

Three areas – the 5,000-seat theater built in partnership with AEG, Zouk Nightclub and the spa – are being held back until the fall and winter months because “additional scope has been added.” Singer Celine Dion will open the theater in November followed by singer Katy Perry and country music stars Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan.

“Everything we do here is nontraditional,” Sibella said. “We try to say, ‘let’s not do it the way people have done it before.’ Let’s be forward thinkers.”

Sibella said the bulk of the planned 5,000-person workforce had been hired as of early June. He said staff training has been taking place inside the property’s convention facility. Resorts World has “strongly encouraged” its workforce to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We have a clinic where we are offering vaccines,” he said.

Remembering Echelon

Boyd Gaming CEO Keith Smith could see the progress of Resorts World Las Vegas from his office in the Hughes Center. He had an obvious interest in the development: The company actually started construction on what is now Resorts World.

“It looks like they took all the infrastructure we had in place, and built it from there,” Smith said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Boyd owned the iconic Rat Park-era Stardust, eventually adding a 32-story hotel tower to the resort. The company then purchased several adjacent lots next to the Stardust, creating an 87-acre site.

In November 2006, Boyd closed the Stardust and imploded the property four months later to make way for Echelon, a planned $4.8 billion resort envisioned with five hotels of varying sizes totaling 5,000 rooms and suites, all connected to a 140,000-square-foot casino.

A formal groundbreaking took place in June 2007. However, as the economy began to struggle and credit markets dried up, Boyd halted Echelon’s construction in August 2008. The project, a mix of steel structures and an unfinished parking garage, sat silent until Genting Berhad acquired the site for $350 million.

“First and foremost, there was a great confidence in the people that took over the property with the money they have invested and what they have built,” Smith said. “Las Vegas has a history of making these big incremental steps every so many years and giving customers more reasons to continue to come and visit. I think (Resorts World) will help grow the overall market in the long term. It’s very much a positive step for the city and our community.”

Boyd has 28 casinos in 10 states. It retained the Stardust name and trademarks, which are being used at the company’s growing online casino business in Pennsylvania.

A portion of the former Echelon project remains unfinished near the Sammy Davis Junior Drive entrance to Resorts World Las Vegas. Seen on June 16, 2021, it's expected to be included in an expansion phase. (Howard Stutz/The Nevada Independent)

Mirage comparison

When The Mirage opened, the $565 million cost left many aghast. At the time, it was the most expensive hotel-casino project ever built in Las Vegas.

That record for a single resort now belongs to Resorts World, at $4.3 billion, although the 2009 opening of CityCenter, which included multiple hotels, high-rise residential and retail, carried a $9 billion price tag. The last all-new hotel-casino on the Strip was the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, which opened in 2010 at a cost of $3.9 billion.

The Mirage’s opening was followed in 1990 by Excalibur. Over the next nine years, the Strip’s landscape dramatically changed as 11 new properties were added to the resort corridor, including MGM Grand in 1993, Bellagio in 1998 and the Venetian, Mandalay Bay and Paris in 1999.

Analysts said Resorts World won’t have the same influence when it comes to stimulating new casino development, but it’s success could lead to sales and renovations of existing Strip hotel-casinos. Derek Stevens opened Circa Casino Resort last fall – downtown Las Vegas’ first all-new resort in 40 years – and Virgin Resorts remodeled the former Hard Rock Las Vegas.

UNLV’s Bernhard noted the emergence of Genting may pave the way for other operators to join the Strip. For example, Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp. is buying the Tropicana and Southern California’s San Manuel Indian Tribe is purchasing the Palms Casino Resort.

“Historically, gaming innovation has been outbound from Las Vegas. Now, the innovation is inbound with new operators,” Bernhard said. “The Strip is going to be better off because of that change.”

He likened the addition of Genting to the Strip’s roster to the change the late Sheldon Adelson brought to Las Vegas when he built the Sands Expo and Convention Center, along with the Venetian.

Bussmann noted that Genting’s move to develop a site started by Boyd was a good sign for Strip. The company completed a project at the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard that will add to the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion and the remodeled Sahara.

“While the future is still hazy for Fontainebleau and another parcel in the area, it definitely extends the experience for the leisure and business customer,” Bussmann said.

Sisolak signs much-debated ‘Right to Return’ legislation into law

Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation on Tuesday that guarantees the rights of laid-off gaming and tourism industry workers to return to their jobs.

Sisolak’s signature on SB386, referred to as the “Right to Return” bill, came without any fanfare and was announced alongside a host of other bills that earned the governor’s written seal of approval on Tuesday. Sisolak held signing ceremonies for 10 bills, many of which were related to women’s health and criminal or social justice reform. He also signed 28 other bills, including SB386, into law on Tuesday.

Gaming representatives and the Culinary Union struck a deal on the high-profile worker rights legislation with less than a week left in the 120-day legislative session, agreeing to limit the scope of the bill and exempting certain employee classes including managers and stage performers.

Every vote on SB386 was on a straight party line with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed.

Even the addition of an amendment that exempted small businesses attached to casino resorts from complying with the legislation did not attract Republican votes. The change excused small restaurants and vendors that had 30 or fewer employees prior to the pandemic.

As part of the deal, revisions were made to SB4, a bill from the 2020 special session last summer that included 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 changes relaxed requirements on cleaning, such as wiping down minibars, headboards and decorative items on beds, and changed directives to clean throughout the day to instead call for daily cleaning.

Critics of the legislation raised concerns that the bill in its original form would have made it too easy for former employees to sue. The new law offers recourse through the Labor Commissioner or through the courts, but only after an employee notifies an employer of any alleged violation and waits at least 15 days for resolution of the issue.

The Nevada Resort Association took a neutral position in return for those concessions, though not all casino operators were on board. Some of the casino industry's largest companies, including MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, backed the changes. Opposition arose from Las Vegas locals casino companies.

The Resort Association declined to comment on the bill signing.

In a statement, Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said passage of the legislation would “protect over 350,000 hospitality workers” in Clark County and Washoe County. 

“At the height of the pandemic 98 percent of Culinary Union members were laid off and currently only 50 percent are back to work,” Argüello-Kline said. “While a majority of unionized hospitality workers already have extended recall protections in their contracts, most hospitality workers protected by the new SB386 Right to Return law are not unionized.”

South Point Casino-Hotel attorney Barry Lieberman said of the final deal that was struck that many of the changes were still “particularly onerous for non-union smaller nonrestricted licensees.”

Lieberman, a long time Nevada gaming attorney and close adviser to South Point owner Michael Gaughan, said several amendments were “a confusing patchwork of vague, burdensome and non-helpful requirements,” and forced employers “to guess at their peril as to what the bill actually requires them to do.” He suggested the changes infringed on an employer’s right to rehire casino workers who have “superior skills” as opposed to other laid-off workers.

Among the bills that received a signing ceremony on Tuesday were SB190, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, which will allow women to obtain birth control at a pharmacy without a doctor’s visit; AB116, sponsored by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen, which decriminalizes minor traffic violations; and AB404, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Judiciary, which shields applicants for domestic violence-related temporary or extended protection orders from having to disclose their addresses or contact information in certain circumstances. 

The Tuesday events were the latest in a string of bill-signing ceremonies. On Monday morning, Sisolak visited a North Las Vegas elementary school to sign education-related legislation, including the mining tax bill, AB495, and in the afternoon, he held a separate signing ceremony for two bills (SB222 and SB318) that promote diverse communities.

Gun free zones in casinos, increasing justice court fees and licensing midwives among many casualties of legislative session

Lawmakers ended the 81st session of the Legislature on Monday night passing dozens of high-profile measures but many others, including an effort to license midwives and a bill allowing casinos to prohibit firearms, failed to advance.

Out of roughly 1,000 bills and resolutions introduced during the 120-day legislative session, more than 400 measures failed to pass through the Senate and Assembly and make it to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk. Many bills were left for dead at deadlines for committee or house passage, but some — including an effort to increase justice court filing fees — were in limbo until minutes before the clock struck midnight on Monday.

Other major bills that failed to advance included a measure aimed at transitioning Nevada residents away from natural gas use, several affordable housing bills and a bill that would have abolished the death penalty.

Here’s a look at some of the bills that died at the end of the session:

SB452: Prohibiting guns on casino properties

In the waning weeks of the session, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) revived discarded portions of the session’s other major gun bill in the form of MGM Resorts-backed AB452, which aimed to grant casino resorts greater authority to ban firearms on their premises.

When Cannizzaro presented the bill, which would have required non-restricted gaming license holders (defined as more than 15 slot machines on property) to opt in to the provisions and would have prohibited individuals from bringing firearms onto casino property with certain exemptions, she described the measure as a way for lawmakers to further protect workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

Supporters said that the bill would largely mirror prohibitions on firearm possession at schools and libraries, but opponents — a broad coalition of Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform organizations — argued it would create uncertainty for gun owners and have a disparate racial impact.

The measure narrowly passed through the Senate in a 11-10 vote on Wednesday, but failed to receive a vote in the Assembly before sine die. During the joint committee hearing on the bill, many Assembly Democrats questioned its merits and expressed concerns about how the measure would affect minority communities.

“We are going to have situations where Black folks and brown folks are going to be the ones who are going to be not asked to leave, but who are going to be the ones that the police are called on,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas) during the hearing.

AB387: Midwifery licensure board 

Nevada is the only state in the west that does not license midwives, but a proposed Board of Licensed Certified Professional Midwives nearly became a reality this session after falling just one vote short of a needed two-thirds majority late Monday evening.

During the last day of the legislative session, the Senate voted 13-8 on Democratic Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno’s AB387, with Sens. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) and Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) joining most Democrat senators in support. Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) joined the Republican senators against the measure, ensuring the bill fell short of the needed two-thirds majority (because the bill required fees for licensure). 

The Assembly had previously passed the bill and its amendments with a 28-14 vote on May 28.  

The board would have been responsible for establishing an optional licensure process for practicing midwives and also would have set training and education requirements. 

An emotional hearing in the Assembly Committee on Commerce and Labor took place in April, in which several mothers shared their experiences with midwives and desire to have birth freedom while also having certain regulations and protections in place for all parties. 

Opposition to the measure was just as passionate, with opponents arguing that the board would overly restrict birthing options and punish midwives who may not want to be licensed or who have learned through apprenticeships rather than in a formal environment. 

SB437: Increased fees for justice court actions

An effort to double administrative fees for actions within the state’s justice courts fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass on the last day of the session.

SB437, which would have increased the fee from $1 to $2 on the commencement of any action in a justice court for which a fee is required, in order to help fund the work of the state demographer within the Department of Taxation, passed through the Senate in mid-May on a 14-7 vote, but only after Sens. Kieckhefer and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) switched from nay to yea votes.

Members of the Assembly then voted 26-16 along party lines on the measure, falling two votes short of the 28 votes needed to pass with a two-thirds majority. Republicans opposed to the bill, which was sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee, expressed confusion and concerns that it would tax the wrong people by imposing funds on litigants within the justice courts to fund the state demographer within the executive branch.

AB161: Study on summary evictions

A severely watered-down measure that would have created a legislative committee to study the state’s “summary eviction” process during the interim was left dead at the end of the session after failing to receive a vote in the Assembly.

The initial version of AB161, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas), would have completely banned the “summary eviction” process, which involves possession of a rental unit and requires a tenant to either pay rent, vacate the property or respond to a notice through the courts within seven days. But the language in the bill was replaced with a study after lawmakers expressed concerns that there was not enough time to consider the consequences of upending the existing system in the midst of the eviction moratorium and amid staunch opposition from real estate groups.

The amended version of the bill, which received support from a slew of progressive groups, was passed out of its first committee in early April but never saw further action from lawmakers.

SB187: Limits on solitary confinement 

Sen. Pat Spearman’s (D-North Las Vegas) bill to limit the use of solitary confinement in Nevada prisons to 30 days never made it to an initial floor vote. 

SB187 also would have required regulations to limit solitary confinement to use only as a last resort. It also called for frequent mental health evaluations and giving inmates at least two hours of out-of-cell time daily, visitation and phone access.  

The Department of Corrections submitted a fiscal note stating that the measure would cost the department more than $40 million dollars for the biennium in order to modify policy at its seven major institutions and provide additional mental health support. 

“Even if they are guilty, they are still human beings, and we should treat them as such,” Spearman said of inmates during the bill’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 12. “If rehabilitation is the goal, then solitary confinement impinges upon that goal.” 

SB139: Prohibiting insurance companies from denying treatment for gender dysphoria

A bill that would have prohibited insurers from denying treatment for gender dysphoria – the psychological distress that results from an incongruence between sex assigned at birth and gender identity – did not survive after passing out of the first committee. 

Sen. Melanie Scheible’s (D-Las Vegas) SB139 aimed to require insurance companies, including Medicaid, to cover medically necessary treatment and surgeries for transgender Nevadans. 

The bill was meant to address instances of insurance companies denying coverage for treatment such as hormone replacement therapy and surgeries, despite existing laws and policies prohibiting the denial, exclusion or limitation of medically necessary health care services based on gender identity or expression. 

Advocates said that access to treatment should be considered medically necessary because without it, the mental health of people who have gender dysphoria suffers greatly. 

“When insurers fail to cover medically necessary care, people suffer anxiety, depression, social ostracism, and a higher risk of suicide,” transgender rights advocate Brooke Maylath said during the bill’s only hearing on March 12. “SB139 is designed to send a clear message to the greater healthcare community – discrimination is not acceptable in Nevada."

Although it received a deadline waiver, the measure did not advance after being referred to the Senate Committee on Finance on April 16. The state Public Employees' Benefits Program (PEBP) had submitted a fiscal note for $1 million for the biennium to extend the coverage for treatments. 

SB235: Additional marijuana licenses for unsuccessful applicants

A bill that became a lightning rod for marijuana industry criticism over a proposed amendment aimed at spurring the creation of scores of new dispensaries failed to make it to the legislative finish line.

The measure from Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), SB235, and a proposed amendment would have offered an alternative path to licensure for marijuana dispensary applicants who were unsuccessful in a 2018 licensing round. In that round, 61 dispensary licenses were issued to just 17 companies even though 127 potential businesses applied.

Those who lost out on the coveted permits pursued a massive lawsuit that ended with a judge saying there were flaws in the state’s process, but that the law did not permit her to order additional licenses as relief. An amendment to Harris’ bill that would have given unsuccessful candidates a path forward was forcefully criticized by the Nevada Dispensary Association, a statewide dispensary trade association whose representatives argued that it would threaten the strength and integrity of the industry.

Opponents also argued that the market could not support a large number of new stores without hurting existing ones; supporters countered with a competing analysis positing that the state could absorb nearly 1,300 new dispensaries.

The Cannabis Compliance Board submitted a fiscal note on the bill saying it would gain at least $610,000 over the biennium as a result of the increase in license renewal fees, and that it would cost an estimated $150,000 to complete a market study to determine demand for the issuance of additional cannabis licenses. 

The bill passed out of a Senate committee, was referred to the Senate Finance committee on April 20, and saw no further action before the end of session.

AB382: Regulating student loan servicers

A sweeping piece of student loan legislation that would have established new regulations on loan servicers in Nevada and would have granted more rights to borrowers was left for dead just a few days before the end of the session after falling one vote short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

The bill was primarily aimed at enacting broad consumer protections through a borrowers’ bill of rights, as well as the licensing and regulation of servicers by the state’s Commissioner of Financial Institutions. 

Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R-Reno) joined all Democratic Assembly members in voting in favor of the measure; however, some Republican lawmakers expressed concerns about the licensing fees that servicers would be required to pay. Student loan servicers Sallie Mae and Discover also opposed the bill, arguing that it could lead to greater costs for borrowers.

Bill sponsor Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) said he adopted an amendment before putting the bill up for a vote that was aimed at addressing the concerns brought up by opponents.

“But some of the student lender interests decided to dig in on it. And unfortunately, again, all members of the minority caucus decided to side with them except for Assemblywoman Tolles,” Watts said, “in my opinion, picking those interests over borrowers that are in our state.”

SB462: Republican-backed effort to change redistricting commission

With the state set to handle the redistricting process in a likely special session sometime later this year, Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer (R-Minden) introduced an emergency measure, SB462, just two days before the end of the session that would have given Democrats and Republicans equal power in creating a redistricting commission.

That bill received zero action in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Instead, members of both the Senate and Assembly adopted SCR13, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), creating an interim reapportionment and redistricting committee composed of four Democrats and two Republicans.

Increasing awareness of mental health services

As the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in heightened mental health issues across the country, lawmakers in Nevada took steps to increase access to behavioral health care, typically through federal relief funds — but a pair of bills aimed at increasing awareness of mental health support services failed to advance out of the Legislature before the end of the session.

AB167, sponsored by Assemblyman Glen Leavitt (R-Boulder City), would have required K-12 schools and colleges to put information relating to mental health resources on student ID cards, including the phone number and text messaging option for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. After passing out of the Assembly on a 41-1 vote in late April, the bill did not receive a committee vote in the Senate.

AB315, which passed out of the Assembly unanimously a few days before the end of the session, would have required law enforcement agencies and fire departments to provide officers and firefighters with information about mental health awareness, prevention, mitigation and treatment, and provide two hours of mental health counseling within three months of retirement. The measure, sponsored by Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill (R-Carson City), passed out of a Senate committee on Sunday, but failed to receive a vote on the Senate floor during the final day of the session.

Not all Nevada casino operators are on board with changes to ‘Right to Return’ legislation

A division has emerged among Nevada Resort Association members over revisions to legislation that would allow laid-off gaming and tourism workers to return to their jobs. One company vows to oppose the modified bill and even seek a veto from Gov. Steve Sisolak.

In an email sent Wednesday morning to the casino industry trade groups representatives, South Point Casino-Hotel attorney Barry Lieberman said many of the changes in SB386 – referred to as “Right to Return” legislation – were “particularly onerous for non-union smaller nonrestricted licensees.”

Lieberman, a long time Nevada gaming attorney and a close adviser to South Point owner Michael Gaughan, voiced concern over several sections of the revised legislation that was passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Tuesday evening in a split vote. A deal on the bill was reportedly reached between gaming industry representatives and negotiators for Culinary Workers Union Local 226 with less than a week left before the end of the state's 120-day legislative session.

“We voted to oppose SB386 and seek a veto of the bill by the Governor if the bill passed the Senate and the Assembly,” Lieberman wrote.

Lawmakers voted along party lines, 12-9, in the Senate early Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after the measure passed out of committee. The changes in the bill are apparently backed by some of the casino industry's largest companies, including MGM Resorts International, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Entertainment — Nevada Resort Association lobbyist Bob Ostrovsky told lawmakers on Tuesday that the association “officially on a majority position is neutral, and we will not support the bill and we will not work against the bill as an association, we are neutral.”

In an interview, Lieberman said the legislation treats “non-union resorts in the same manner” as properties with collective bargaining agreements. Representatives from other casino companies declined comment.

Lieberman termed several amendments to SB368 as “a confusing patchwork of vague, burdensome and non-helpful requirements.” He said the changes force employers “to guess at their peril as to what the bill actually requires them to do.”

He suggested the changes to the bill “impairs” an employer’s right to rehire casino workers who have “superior skills” as opposed to other laid-off workers.

Lieberman said the Nevada legislation’s passage will actually “discourage employers from hiring new employees.” Under the legislation, properties cannot hire a new employee for a position until all the provisions for full-time and part time employees “have been satisfied.”

Four sections in the legislation fail “to draw any distinctions between on-call, part time or full-time employees,” the attorney wrote in analyzing the 20-page document. The new language, Lieberman said, is “ambiguous” in describing the timelines for laid off workers and could be viewed as more favorable to part time employees as opposed to full-time employees.

The section requiring businesses to notify laid-off workers of layoffs “makes no sense.”

In the email, Lieberman said a decision was made by a majority of members of the Resort Association’s executive committee to remain neutral “in exchange for negotiating out of SB386 some of the more onerous provisions.” He said the decision was opposed by South Point.

The Culinary Union, which represents some 60,000 non-gaming workers in Nevada’s hotel-casino industry, has said just 50 percent of the workforce has been hired back since gaming reopened following a 78-day shutdown last year. Labor organization officials said SB386 is needed to ensure its members are able to return to their previous jobs.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rusty McAllister, in a statement, called the legislation a “common-sense measure that is urgently needed to create stability in Nevada’s workforce.”

As part of the agreement between the casinos and the union, 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.

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.

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. 

This story was updated on May 26 at 8:18 p.m. to reflect that the bill passed out of the Senate.

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.

Despite opposition, lawmakers revive and advance MGM-backed bill banning guns in casinos

A revived, last-minute bill aimed at giving casino resorts a greater ability to ban firearms on their premises supported by MGM Resorts drew staunch opposition from an unusual group of opponents — Republicans, gun right advocates and criminal justice reform groups.

During a joint meeting of Assembly and Senate judiciary committees on Saturday, lawmakers spent a rainy Carson City morning digging into the details of SB452 — an emergency bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and introduced last week that revives jettisoned portions of the other major gun bill of the session. Senators opted to vote the bill out of committee after the hearing on a 4-3, party-line vote.

Cannizzaro, who presented the bill alongside Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and MGM Resorts representative Ayesha Molino, characterized the bill as another step that lawmakers could take to protect workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

“We are again looking to adapt our state's legal tools to better protect our hospitality workers and our visitors and guests that traveled to Las Vegas from around the world, this time by ensuring that we can appropriately prevent instances where physical violence may otherwise be a factor,” Cannizzaro said.

Nevada Speaker of the Senate Nicole Cannizzaro presents SB 452 during a joint meeting of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Assembly Committee on Judiciary inside the Legislature on Saturday, May 22, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

This isn’t the first time that lawmakers have heard details on the concept of expanding “gun-free zones” — similar language was initially included in Jauregui’s AB286, legislation that also bans firearm assembly kits without serial numbers and so-called “ghost guns.” The concept is strongly supported by MGM Resorts, which helped present both the Assembly and Senate bills and has sought enhanced limits on firearms since the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that took place on the company’s properties.

That bill saw amendments narrowing and finally eliminating the language on limiting firearm possession on private property — in part over concerns from progressive lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates that the provisions would lead to more harassment and targeting of minority communities.

Despite another amendment presented Saturday, the bill drew many of the same complaints and concerns from not just gun rights advocates, but police unions, trial attorneys, progressive groups, public defenders and even several Democratic lawmakers, who said they feared the bill would lead to targeting of minority communities.

“We are going to have situations where Black folks and brown folks are going to be the ones who are going to be not asked to leave, but who are going to be the ones that the police are called on,” said Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong (D-Las Vegas). “I'm very concerned about that, because I have a commitment to my community that I do everything that I can to try and keep them safe. We know that every single time there is an interaction with police for Black and brown people, the opportunity for it to go sideways is great.”

Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong during a joint meeting of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Assembly Committee on Judiciary inside the Legislature on Saturday, May 22, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

SB452 (plus an amendment) allows for non-restricted gaming license holders (defined as more than 15 slot machines on property) to opt in to the provisions of the bill, which generally prohibits individuals from bringing firearms onto casino property with certain exemptions. Businesses would be required to post signage at every public entrance and give law enforcement a seven-day notice before opting in to the bill’s provisions.

A person who is carrying a concealed firearm would have to be given a verbal warning prior to any involvement by law enforcement, with no verbal warning given to someone openly carrying a firearm, before the person with a gun is opened up to criminal liability or a police response. If a person refuses to leave the premises or surrender the firearm, the bill would set an initial misdemeanor penalty.

Exemptions in the bill would cover security guards or police while on duty, owners of residential units within the casino property, guests who purchase a firearm at a trade show, or anyone who obtains the written consent of the property to bring a firearm there. The amendment to the bill would require any casino property that opts in to the bill to adopt policies and procedures that include training for security guards on de-escalation techniques, cultural diversity competency and implicit bias.

After the hearing, the bill was processed with another amendment that sought to address concerns raised by opponents, including:

  • Requiring an establishment’s firearm policies be provided on their website, and for all signs to cite the controlling portion of state law
  • Require police that arrive in response to a call from the establishment to identify themselves and provide the person an opportunity to comply with the policy
  • Narrow the definition of “premises” to exclude any adjacent properties owned by the licensee
  • Revise the law enforcement exemption to mirror language in existing law on a similar exemption in the state prohibition on firearms on school campuses

Supporters stressed that private businesses already have the right to prohibit firearms on their premises, but that the bill would give them an ability to better enforce their property rights — Cannizzaro said it’s “something that they may already do, and we are trying to make sure that that is something that they can properly enforce.”

“This language simply enhances the business community's toolkit to notify patrons of this prohibition and to call upon law enforcement to assist and address situations before they escalate and become dangerous,” she said.

The bill attracted support from Everytown for Gun Safety and the Culinary union — lobbyist Jim Sullivan cited the 2017 mass shooting and said thousands of union members “saw firsthand the effects of gun violence” and wanted to ensure that “no hospitality worker ever has to experience that trauma again.”

But much of the testimony on the bill was in opposition — ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Athar Haseebullah noted that the legislation drew opponents from across the ideological spectrum and called the bill “half-baked at best.”

“This simply isn't a bad bill that has good intentions, this is a deadly bill, with good intentions,” he said. “No amendment to this bill, no matter how well intended, can fix its potential outcomes. This bill is inherently unredeemable, and is a pretense for dangerous and racist stop-and-frisk policies that have plagued our country and our state.”

National Rifle Association lobbyist Dan Reid said the bill would create “a lot of uncertainty” for gun owners, saying the exemption for residential unit owners in casino resorts may not cover family members or guests.

“We think this bill is wholly unnecessary, and it really could implicate a lot of good people,” he said.

Though Republican lawmakers and gun rights advocates vigorously opposed the bill, the measure could run into difficulty in the Assembly, where many Democratic lawmakers expressed hesitancy and skepticism over the bill. Assemblywoman Cecelia González (D-Las Vegas) questioned whether the implicit bias training requirements in the legislation would be the same across the board at different properties, and said the circumstances described by proponents in which the bill would apply appeared uncommon at best.

“Just to be clear, we are seeking to address an issue that may or may not happen,” she said. “We don’t know.”

Still, supporters stressed that the bill would largely mirror prohibitions on firearm possession at schools and libraries, and said that lawmakers should take similar steps to ensure the safety of the state’s main economic driver — the Las Vegas Strip.

“As we've all noticed, the tourism economy is the lifeblood of our Nevada economy and so we should be paying special attention to the resorts and the casinos and the hotels, and all of the places that people come from all over the world to ensure that they can be safe while they are there,” Senate Judiciary Chair Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) said shortly before the committee vote. “And we should be able to allow those facilities to have this increased and improved amount of safety on their properties.”

Airport boss, tourism officials say international travel key to Vegas rebound

The pandemic-driven absence of international flights to and from Las Vegas has removed one of the gaming industry’s most lucrative business segments, leading airport leaders, tourism officials and gaming insiders to push for the U.S. to reopen for travel from key destinations.

Clark County Director of Aviation Rosemary Vassiliadis told members of a Senate subcommittee at a hearing Tuesday that airline operators want to resume flights into McCarran International Airport – the ninth busiest airport in North America – but are thwarted by travel restrictions affecting “nonessential” leisure and convention visitors.

“These airlines ask us point blank, ‘What is the U.S. doing to reopen travel? When will our airline be able to resume bringing vacationers and conventioneers to Las Vegas?’” Vassiliadis said in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion. The subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV).

“Almost every day, I or members of my team hear from representatives of international air carriers expressing interest in quickly resuming service to Las Vegas,” Vassiliadis said.

Gaming industry insiders are asking the same questions.

Truist Securities gaming analyst Barry Jonas said that before COVID-19 disrupted the Strip, 14 percent of Las Vegas’ annual visitors came from international destinations.

“The resumption of international travel should be one of the key next legs for the Strip’s recovery,” Jonas said. “International visitors stay longer (and have) bigger gaming and non-gaming budgets.”

Vassiliadis suggested that the U.S. develop “a risk-based roadmap” that allows global travel to return through a more flexible approach, rather than keeping the blanket travel ban that was put into place by the White House in January.

She said the International Civil Aviation Organization, with support from the Federal Aviation Administration, has produced a manual in which global air routes could be restored, but also could be adjusted if COVID-19 surges on either end of the route.

“The EU is gradually deploying methods to reopen its members’ borders for vaccinated passengers, and the United Kingdom has embraced an approach similar to ICAO’s.” Vassiliadis said. “These actions have opened the door for U.K. residents to begin non-essential travel to select countries later this month.”

She noted, however, that the U.S. wasn’t on the list of cleared destinations, “creating a major hurdle toward reconnecting Las Vegas with its top overseas visitor market.”

From 11 down to one

In 2019, McCarran had nonstop service to and from 11 different countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Korea, China and Israel.

“Now, that number is down to one, with Mexico representing our lone international market currently in service,” Vassiliadis said. “Over the first four months of 2021, our international volume has amounted to less than 80,000 passengers.” 

In 2020, McCarran had 781,280 incoming and outgoing international passengers, a decline of 79.5 percent compared with more than 3.8 million international customers in 2019. Several Canadian air carriers had maintained routes to Las Vegas for a time, but service was halted when COVID-19 surged in Canada and the government closed its borders.

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO Steve Hill said he supports the roadmap suggested by Vassiliadis. The resort industry is reopening and the first major trade show in more than a year – the World of Concrete – is scheduled for next month.

“We’re ready to get back and other countries are ready to get back,” Hill said. “Frankly, waiting for the whole world to get back is just not good for anybody involved.”

Diminished gaming revenues

The loss of business from Asia has diminished revenue streams for Strip resorts that offer high-end baccarat play. The game can tip the scales along the Las Vegas Strip during Chinese New Year in the January-February timeframe and large-scale events.

Jonas said Asian high-end table game play has historically been a “meaningful contributor” to Strip casinos, estimating it accounted for roughly 5 percent to 10 percent of MGM Resorts International’s total cash flow from its Las Vegas properties.   

UNLV gaming researcher and historian David G. Schwartz views baccarat as “important” to Nevada gaming and a “proxy for high-end Asian play.” Over the past decade, before the pandemic, baccarat averaged more than 10 percent of statewide gaming revenues annually.

Schwartz called the statistic “remarkable, given how small” the number of baccarat tables was compared to other table games, such as blackjack, craps and roulette.

Through March, baccarat revenues are down 45.6 percent compared to 2020, which recorded the game’s first sub-$1 billion revenue year since 2009. Revenues from baccarat hit an all-time high of almost $1.6 billion in 2013, a year that saw the state collect more $11.1 billion in gaming revenues.

“Pound for pound, baccarat tables generate far more revenue than other gaming positions,” Schwartz said. “For that to return we need to become a destination for international travelers, particularly from Asia.”

No to vaccine passports

Vassiliadis told the subcommittee that the U.S. government needs to lead the world in establishing ways to safely admit international travelers. But she stopped short of calling for a Digital Health Credential (DHC), which could be construed as a vaccine passport, for domestic travelers.

“We do need the government to set the parameters and criteria for accepting solutions that are already being implemented in other parts of the world,” Vassiliadis said. “To be clear, aviation industry members are not advocating for a DHC mandate.”

Hill agreed that “vaccinations are the key,” but that a vaccine passport was not the right strategy for domestic travel.

"But it could work with international markets,” Hill said.

Vassiliadis said the U.S. should be involved in “worldwide discussions” that would set guidelines or standards for the use of DHC in authenticating testing and vaccination status for international travelers.

“Establishing a harmonized approach for the implementation of these DHCs will allow the traveling public to understand the requirements for international travel and reduce the occurrence of fraudulent documentation,” Vassiliadis said.

As Las Vegas' rebound picks up steam, hospitality workers still waiting for callbacks push for "Right to Return" bill

Mario Sandoval was a waiter at Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel’s steakhouse in downtown Las Vegas for 36 years but has not worked since mid-March of 2020 — when casinos were closed because of the pandemic — along with thousands of Nevadans in the tourism and hotel industry. 

Months passed and several hotels, casinos and restaurants reopened with capacity limits, including Binion’s, but the restaurant where Sandoval worked remained closed.

In January of this year, he received a letter informing him that he had been terminated. Sandoval, who is 53 years old, says he does not have the time or skills to pursue a new career, nor can he retire early.

“What we're seeing is a lot of older workers who are in their 50s or 60s, they just have maybe 10 years to retirement or five years to retirement, and they are really worried that they won't get these jobs now that they're competing with everyone else for the job they had previously,” said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Workers Union.

Thanks to his daughter, who lives with Sandoval, he was able to get by during the pandemic. Sandoval said his daughter never stopped working and took on the responsibility of covering household expenses and supporting him.

Although Binion’s has a contract with the Culinary Union, Sandoval fears his former restaurant managers will not call him back, preferring to hire someone new with a lower salary. He not only fears for himself, but also for his colleagues in other hotels and casinos who do not have contracts with the union.

“Companies should not waste time and money trying to hire and train new people when there are people like me with so much experience just waiting for our workplaces to bring us back,” Sandoval told The Nevada Independent. “I should not be replaced or abandoned for a younger worker when I have spent my life working for this company. I should not have to start my career over when I am so close to retiring with dignity.”

Culinary Union officials hope to avoid that competition with SB386, the so-called “Right to Return” bill, which would require companies to offer any employees laid off during the pandemic their jobs back, but negotiations between the resorts and Culinary Union are ongoing.

During the bill's first hearing, opposing testimony from the Las Vegas Chamber, Henderson Chamber of Commerce, Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Airlines, Boyd Gaming Corporation and Caesars Entertainment included objections about a provision they said would cause unnecessary litigation: It would allow workers to bring civil actions against employers who do not comply with the requirements of the bill.

Some opponents of the bill also said that companies have supported their employees through the pandemic and that the measure would hinder efforts to bring back employees because of its “time-consuming” requirements and the potential of distracting management from its rehiring efforts to deal with lawsuits.

A statement from an attorney with South Point Hotel Casino and Spa submitted in opposition said that management continued to pay health insurance premiums after furloughing employees out of a “concern for the employees’ welfare.” 

Mario Sandoval, a Culinary Workers Union member who was a waiter at Binion's Hotel Casino's steakhouse for 36 years, he was furloughed during the pandemic. Bethany Khan/Culinary Workers Union

The proposal

The measure was presented on April 7 by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) and aims to ensure that laid-off hospitality and tourism employees are granted the option to return to their prior positions.

If passed, the law would apply to workers who were laid off after March 12, 2020 and who were employed for at least six months prior to the first COVID-19 emergency declaration issued by Sisolak.

The measure received a waiver so negotiations could continue past legislative deadlines between the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, the Culinary Workers Union and hotel companies.

Khan declined to elaborate on the state of negotiations this week. Asked about the status of negotiations on Thursday, Virginia Valentine of the Nevada Resort Association said her group is carefully watching the bill and having conversations about it.

“It’s a complicated bill with a lot of stakeholders so I wouldn’t expect to hear anything right away,” she told The Nevada Independent

Khan said one of the benefits of the bill for union members would be the right to be recalled from a layoff for up to two years, depending on contracts with the company.

Essentially, employers would be required to reinstate a laid-off employee before hiring someone new for that same position. For example, if a former employee has not worked since March 2020, the employee could return to work at the company until March 2022 — if their employment contract allows for that two-year recall period, Khan said.

Under this protection, union members would be called back to work by seniority, and would keep the same job title, benefits, salary and health care plan.

The risk

Maria Balandrán was a buffet cook assistant for 18 years at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson, a Station Casinos property that does not have a contract with the Culinary Workers Union. 

Balandrán and her fellow employees voted to unionize in 2017, but the company legally challenged the formation of a union. A D.C. Circuit Court denied the company’s final appeal in 2020, but no union contract has yet been established. 

In May 2020, someone told Balandrán to check a Facebook page where the names of people who had been terminated had just been published. And there she saw her name.

Balandrán has no guarantee the resort will hire her again in her same position. As it stands, she will have to reapply for work alongside dozens of people who have lived the same situation and are also looking for work. 

“My daughters depend on me and on what I earn. When they took us out of work I had to ask for unemployment. I had never asked for unemployment, I have always worked,” Balandrán said in Spanish in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “And I had to apply for [Medicaid] for my daughters, and I had to apply for food stamps, things that I had never done. It is the first time that I have had to depend on these benefits in order to support my daughters.”

Since then, Balandrán, who is a single mother of three daughters, has been able to survive and support her family with help from the state and federal government, including unemployment support, food stamps and stimulus checks. 

“Workers like Maria that are terminated and want to go back to work, would have to reapply, reinterview, compete with other workers for her job but she had before. And then be at risk of getting paid $3 to $4 less an hour for the same exact job she was doing for 18 years,” Khan said.

A Station Casinos spokesperson testified in opposition to the measure during the bill’s hearing, saying that the measure would “damage those employers who are still fighting to recover from the pandemic by creating burdensome, time-consuming requirements that complicate and discourage rehiring.”

The spokesperson did not answer The Nevada Independent’s inquiries about the company's rehiring processes — or about former employees finding out about terminations through a Facebook post.

“I know it is difficult because everyone is unemployed, and finding another job again is very difficult. In whatever that is available, the point is that I have to support my family,” said Balandrán. "What I would like is that they give us the right to return, that they pass SB386 so that they give us the right to return to work with our salary, our benefits as we had before ... I hope the politicians pass this law.”

Unemployed casino worker Maria Balandrán stands outside her home in Las Vegas on Friday, April 30, 2021. She has been unemployed since March of 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The reopening

Sandoval is hopeful that when business capacity returns to 100 percent, many of his industry colleagues will be able to return to their jobs. In recent months, some local hotels and casinos have held several job fairs to fill open positions. 

“We know those companies are going to open, and they're going to open soon because June 1 is coming. And they’re supposed to change the [capacity] mandate to 100 percent, and that's when you're going to see money,” Sandoval said. “We're a well-trained staff and ready to go back to work. Don't have to train you, or any of it. We're just ready, and been waiting.” 

A year after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses in the state to shut their doors, including hotels and casinos, most have reopened and the number of visitors is increasing.

McCarran International Airport announced that it saw nearly one million more domestic flight passengers in March, a 60 percent increase compared to February. And Nevada casinos made more than $1 billion in gambing winnings last month, the state’s highest monthly gaming win in eight years, according to new data from the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Starting May 1, Clark County will increase the indoor capacity limit for businesses to 80 percent, outdoor service will have no capacity limit and the social distancing requirement will be reduced to three feet. Buffets, adult entertainment venues and nightclubs can all reopen under these new regulations.

This week Wynn Resorts and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas announced that more than 80 percent of their active workforce has been vaccinated against COVID-19. As a result, the Nevada Gaming Control Board will allow the properties to open their casino floors to 100 percent capacity. 

Valentine said many large casino companies are already doing callbacks “to a large extent.”

“We're bringing people back to work as fast as we can,” she said. “We're confident that we're going to bring as many people as possible, and obviously getting everybody vaccinated will help us a lot with getting fully open. The more people are vaccinated, the more people that are going back to work.”

According to the Culinary Union, 50 percent of the 60,000 members of the Culinary Workers Union have returned to work, but the other half are still waiting.

That figure does not include the hundreds of employees of properties that do not have a contract with the union.

Boyd Gaming told The Nevada Independent that its rehiring process includes first calling past employees to verify that they are interested in returning, but some have decided not to return and so the company has had to hire new team members. David Strow, spokesman for Boyd Gaming also said that as demand increases and business continues to recover, the company will “step up” its hiring efforts. 

When asked about their rehiring process, Caesars Entertainment and Wynn Resorts chose not to answer. MGM Resorts International did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

Khan said SB386 would guarantee workers are not penalized or abandoned by their employers.

“Our stance is we cannot have a full recovery in Nevada without workers who make the number one industry in Nevada, which is tourism and hospitality,” Khan said. “Workers cannot be cut out or left out of the recovery.”

Lawmakers look to end a lucrative green building tax abatement program

Madori Vista townhomes under construction

For more than a decade, some of Nevada’s most iconic casino resorts and businesses have benefited from the same tax abatement program — giving substantial property tax breaks for new or renovated energy-efficient buildings.

The state’s Green Building Tax Abatements program is still in heavy use — a state report estimated more than $25 million in property taxes were abated through the 2020 fiscal year, with $105 million in property taxes abated since 2010. State budget analysts say that more than 160 buildings in the state — from Park MGM, Wynn/Encore and even the T-Mobile Arena — enjoy partial property tax abatements through the program.

But the abatement program’s days could be numbered.

Lawmakers in a joint budget meeting on Friday approved moving forward with the planned elimination of the abatement program, which will also see an estimated loss of $87,500 in program application fees. But the budget committee only deals with the financial impact — a bill draft request eliminating the program has been requested, but not yet been introduced so far this session.

So why the request to wind down the program? According to the Governor’s Office of Energy, which administers the program, adoption of the 2018 International Energy Conservation Code (model building codes adopted by many states for minimum design and construction standards related to energy efficiency) led the state to reassess the efficacy of the abatement program.

In a statement, GOE Director David Bobzien said the agency contracted with a third party to evaluate the relationship of the minimum energy efficiency required under the rating systems and the newly adopted building standards — finding that the minimum standards now exceeded the state requirements for the abatement program.

“The continuance of the GBTA program will allow property owners to receive a partial property tax abatement for building to the minimum standard already adopted in the state, which no longer aligns with the intent of the program as initially established in (state law),” he said in an emailed statement.

Current beneficiaries won’t be affected by the program ending, as approved buildings receive through the program a partial property tax abatement ranging from 25 to 35 percent for a period of either 5 or 10 years. Established during a 2005 special session, the abatement program made headlines in 2007 after it was partially blamed for contributing to a substantial education funding deficit in part caused by losses in local school support taxes (one analysis estimated that the original version of the abatement program would have seen Clark County lose up to 10 percent of its tax base and close to $1 billion in lost revenue over the two-year state budget cycle).

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Cortez Masto, Lee top prior first-quarter fundraising tallies as congressional campaigns eye 2022 midterms

Congressional representatives across the state reported race-leading fundraising hauls this week, positioning each with an early money advantage more than a year in advance of next summer’s primary elections. 

Leading all fundraising was Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-NV), who reported more than $2.3 million in fundraising ahead of what is expected to be a competitive re-election bid. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who is not up for reelection until 2024, reported $341,794.

In the House, District 3 Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) led the state’s delegation with $607,407 raised through the first quarter; District 4’s Steven Horsford (D-NV) followed with $363,210; District 2’s Mark Amodei (R-NV) reported $77,749; and District 1’s Dina Titus (D-NV) reported $48,080.

With so much time left before the formal filing deadline for congressional elections next spring, the field of challengers in each district remains relatively small. Even so, two Republican challengers in the state’s two swing districts reported six-figure fundraising hauls, including Sam Peters in District 4 ($135,000) and April Becker in District 3 ($143,000).

Below are some additional campaign finance numbers for each candidate, broken down by district from greatest cumulative fundraising to least. 

Catherine Cortez Masto (D) — incumbent

Ahead of her first-ever bid for re-election as a U.S. senator and as Democrats prepare to defend their razor-thin margin in the Senate, Cortez Masto reported $2.3 million in fundraising, boosting her cash on hand by roughly 55 percent to nearly $4.7 million. 

A vast majority of that money, about $1.8 million, came from individual donors, including roughly $1.35 million in itemized contributions and $460,000 in small-dollar unitemized donations. Cortez Masto also raised an even $349,000 from PACs, more than $51,000 from political party committees and nearly $86,500 from other fundraising committee transfers.  

With a fundraising total orders of magnitude larger than any other candidate in Nevada through the first quarter, Cortez Masto also has by far the most individual donors of the entire field with thousands of itemized contributions reported, including several dozen contributions of the legal maximum. 

By law, individuals can contribute up to $2,900 per candidate per election (i.e. for the primary and for the general) in federal elections, while PACs and other committees can contribute up to $5,000 per election. Major donors will often contribute that maximum twice, once for the primary and again for the general, up front, giving candidates between $5,800 and $10,000.

Among the many donors who maxed out their contribution to Cortez Masto were a handful of Nevada regulars, including businessman and major Democratic donor Stephen Cloobeck ($2,900 in the first quarter, $5,800 overall) and MGM Resorts International ($5,000).

With nearly $663,000 spent this quarter, no Nevada politician came close to Cortez Masto in outlays. Most of that money, $382,206, went to nine firms involved in fundraising operations, including mailers ($213,406) and online ($168,800). 

Jacky Rosen (D) — incumbent

With more than three years before she’ll face voters again, Rosen reported a comparatively modest $341,794 in contributions last quarter, but her campaign has more than $1.85 million in cash on hand. 

Of that money, most ($226,165) came from individual contributions, with the rest flowing largely from PACs ($14,000) and authorized committee transfers ($97,600).

Among the several dozen donors giving Rosen the legal maximum were Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun ($5,800) and his wife, Myra Greenspun ($5,800); Niraj Shah, CEO of the furniture retailer Wayfair ($2,900); and a leadership PAC linked to former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, the Seeking Justice PAC ($5,000).  

Most of the $137,000 spent by Rosen was for regular operating expenditures, though her campaign twice spent $5,000 for online advertising from New York-based firm Assemble the Agency. 

A district that covers much of the southern half of Clark County, including some of the Las Vegas metro’s wealthiest suburbs, District 3 has switched hands between the two major parties three times since its creation in 2002. 

For three cycles, that control has been maintained by Democrats, following a narrow win by Rosen in 2016, and subsequent victories by Lee in 2018 and 2020. Still, a narrow victory in the district by Donald Trump in 2016 and small voter registration gaps have marked District 3 as one of a few-dozen nationwide that may become key to deciding which party controls the House after the 2022 midterms.

Susie Lee (D) — incumbent

Frequently the top-fundraiser among Nevada’s House delegation, Susie Lee continued her streak last quarter with $607,407 in contributions. After Lee largely depleted her campaign reserves in a pricey bid to keep her seat last year, that first-quarter fundraising has left her campaign with just over $484,000 in cash on hand. 

Nearly all of that money — $493,070 — came from individual contributions, with the remaining $114,000 coming from big-money PAC contributions. 

Among those individual donors were several dozen contributing the $2,900 maximum. Those big money donors were largely local business leaders — including Cashman Equipment CEO MaryKaye Cashman, MGM Resorts International CEO Bill Hornbuckle and former MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren — though the group also included television showrunner and producer Shonda Rhimes.

Among PACs that contributed the $5,000 maximum were a mix of business interests (including PACs related to Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International), and unions (including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and SMART, the sheet metal and transportation workers union, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.) 

Lee reported spending nearly $146,000 last quarter, an amount second only to Cortez Masto among the delegation members. Most of that money went to campaign consulting and staffing costs, with the single largest chunk — $32,000 spread over five payments — going to Washington, D.C.-based digital consulting firm Break Something. 

April Becker (R)

After her unsuccessful run for the Legislature in 2020, attorney April Becker is challenging Susie Lee (D) for her seat in Congress. In the first quarter of 2021, Becker raised $143,444 mostly from individual contributors. 

Becker received $2,000 from PACs, such as the Stronger Nevada PAC and (although not officially endorsed by) the campaigns for fellow Republican politicians, former Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei. 

Several of her big individual contributors included family members; donations from individuals with the last name Becker totaled $29,500, nearly a fifth of the total contributions. Local business owners also contributed to Becker, including some car dealership owners: $5,000 from Gary Ackerman of Gaudin Motor Company; Cliff Findlay and Donna Findlay of Findlay Automotive each donated the maximum of $2,900, totaling $5,800; and Donald Forman of United Nissan Vegas gave $5,800.  

Co-owners of the Innovative Pain Care Center, Melissa and Daniel Burkhead, each gave $5,800 totaling $11,600. Other contributors included several medical professionals, real estate investors and attorneys.

In the first quarter, Becker kept most of the money collected, $131,460, reporting spending only $11,983 on more fundraising efforts. 

Mark Robertson (R)

Also hoping to challenge Susie Lee, Army veteran Mark Robertson raised $61,631 in his first time running for a political seat. The sum includes $7,451 he loaned his campaign.  

Although he collected less than half than Becker in the first quarter, retirees were large contributors to his campaign, some nearly reaching the $5,800 maximum for both the primary and general elections. 

Several local architects, engineers and construction contractors were also among the contributors, including $5,000 combined from Kenneth and Michelle Alber of Penta Building Group, $3,000 from Brock Krahenbuhl, a contractor for GTI Landscape and $3,000 from Wayne Horlacher of Horrock Engineers. 

Robertson reported spending $25,148, including $5,250 on campaign consulting, $3,138 on office supplies and $3,270 on video and print advertising production services. After the expenditures, Robertson is left with $44,034 cash on hand. 

A geographically massive district — larger than some states — that encompasses parts of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and much of the state’s central rural counties, District 4 has been held by Democrats for all but one cycle since its creation in 2011. That exception came in 2014, when Republican Cresent Hardy unseated then-freshman Democrat Steven Horsford in an upset. 

Horsford retook the seat in 2018, defeating Hardy in an open race after incumbent Democrat Ruben Kihuen declined to mount his own re-election bid amid a sexual harassment investigation. Horsford later won re-election in 2020, beating Republican Jim Marchant by 5 percentage points. 

Steven Horsford (D) — incumbent

With $363,209 in reported fundraising, Horsford boosted his campaign war chest by more than 50 percent last quarter, lifting his cash on hand to $757,142. 

That fundraising was driven mostly by $205,883 in individual contributions, though Horsford also brought in a much larger share of PAC contributions ($157,251) than his delegation counterparts.

Among Horsford’s single-largest contributors was Las Vegas Sun owner Brian Greenspun and his wife, Myra, who both contributed the $2,900 maximum for the primary and general elections, or $11,600 combined. 

Horsford’s biggest PAC contributions came from a mix of political committees linked to the Democratic Party, unions and corporations. That includes $10,000 from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC (of which Horsford is a member), $5,000 from the public employees union AFSCME and $5,000 from MGM Resorts International.   

A vast majority of the $102,000 spent by Horsford’s campaign last quarter went to operating costs, salaries and consultants, though — like his fellow incumbents — a sizable portion ($21,000) still flowed to a pair of fundraising and finance compliance consultants. 

Sam Peters (R)

After finishing second in last year’s Republican primary for District 4, veteran and local business owner Sam Peters led Republican fundraising efforts in the district this quarter. Peters’ campaign raised more than $135,000, which came entirely from individual contributions.

Those contributions were driven largely by retirees, as two-thirds of the 100 big-money contributions over $200 came from donors listing themselves as retired. Peters’ campaign was also boosted by a few maximum or near-maximum donations, including $5,800 from Frank Suryan Jr., CEO of Lyon Living, a residential development company based in Newport Beach, California, and $5,800 from Suryan’s spouse.

After spending a little more than $24,000, mostly on campaign consulting and fundraising services, Peters ended the quarter with nearly $115,000 in cash on hand, nearly double the amount he had at the end of the first quarter of 2021.

A district that includes Reno and much of rural Northern Nevada, District 2 has for two cycles been the only federal seat in Nevada still held by a Republican. The one-time seat of former Sen. Dean Heller and former Gov. Jim Gibbons, both Republicans, the seat has been held by incumbent Republican Mark Amodei since 2011, when he defeated Democrat Kate Marshall in a special election to replace the outgoing Heller. 

Mark Amodei (R) — incumbent

After Amodei spent close to a thousand dollars more than he raised through the first three months of 2021, his campaign war chest sits at $323,347 entering the second quarter.

His fundraising of nearly $78,000 came largely from big-money contributions totaling more than $50,000, including roughly 30 donations between $1,000 and $2,000. But Amodei was also boosted by several maximum or near-maximum donations from Margaret Cavin, owner of plumbing company J&J Mechanical in Reno ($5,600), and Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research ($5,800).

Amodei’s fundraising was also boosted by a few large contributions from political committees, including $5,000 donations from PACs affiliated with MGM Resorts International and New York Life Insurance, $3,500 from a PAC affiliated with the aerospace company Sierra Nevada Corporation and $2,500 from Barrick Gold, a mining company.

Amodei’s spending was distributed across a wide range of categories, as he spent $7,625 on radio advertising, $4,000 on campaign consulting, nearly $20,000 on fundraising consulting, $12,750 on accounting services and more than $7,500 on meals and entertainment for contributor relations — including nearly $700 paid to cigar companies and more than $2,000 spent at Trattoria Alberto, an Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Located in the urban center of Las Vegas, the deep blue District 1 has been held by incumbent Democratic Rep. Dina Titus since 2012. Titus won the seat after losing a previous re-election bid in nearby District 3 in 2010, which she had held for one term after a win over Republican Rep. Joe Heck in 2008.

Dina Titus (D) — incumbent

With no clear challengers in the district, Titus finished the first quarter with the least money raised of any Nevada incumbent — she received $48,080, which was $1.85 less than she raised through the same period last year.

More than half of those funds were given by four PACs that contributed a combined $25,000. The American Institute of Architects’ PAC, a PAC associated with the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC gave $5,000 each, a pro-Israel PAC called Desert Caucus donated $10,000.

Titus also received $14,280 from individuals, including a $1,000 contribution from former Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin and a maximum contribution of $5,800 from Uwe Rockenfeller, president of Boulder City-based engineering firm Rocky Research.

After spending $37,000 in the quarter, Titus brought her cash on hand total to almost $340,000.