Las Vegas' return: Rebuilding the employee base

The 2020 shutdown led to significant job losses throughout the US casino sector. Now, properties are having to urgently hire as they reopen. Cole Rush examines the steps being taken to ensure employees can be enticed back.


On June 1, 2021, Las Vegas lifted the vast majority of its Covid-19 restrictions. Capacity limits and the curtailment of large gatherings no longer stall the city’s economy, and casino-going is returning to some semblance of normalcy.

Various other casino properties and regional gambling hubs are following suit - barring any local ongoing Covid-19 protocols. This means casino resorts have an opportunity to welcome customers at full capacity and offer full game libraries for the first time in over a year.

Although the US is making progress, a few stark realities remain. While case numbers decline, the pandemic is still an issue, especially among unvaccinated populations and in high-risk areas.

In addition, millions of people lost their jobs in the midst of the global health crisis. As restrictions lift and employees return to work, everyone has to stay vigilant and adjust long-held workplace traditions to adapt to this new normal.

From the early days of the pandemic in March 2020 to the present day, a lot has changed, and the industry is taking notice. And while there’s plenty of discourse about what this means for customers and gamblers, employees are also heavily impacted.

Coming back

As one might expect, Covid-19 has sparked renewed discussion about worker protections. Now, that discourse extends far beyond surface-level initiatives such as plexiglass barriers or daily cleanings, which were (and still are) a mainstay protective layer for casino workers and customers alike.

On the employee side, returning to work (and the benefits that come along with the job) are naturally top of mind.

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, Secretary-Treasurer of the Culinary Union Local 226, says: “[The past 18 months] was a very difficult time. 97% of our members were laid off, so we have been concentrating on taking care of our members and their families….our organization was completely focused on keeping our members’ health care intact.”

Culinary Union local 226 has over 60,000 members in the Las Vegas area, and the organization remained laser-focused on protecting workings during the difficult times presented by the pandemic.


Some protections, in fact, are codified in legislation. SB386 passed the Nevada legislature, then earned a signature from Governor Steve Sisolak to become law. Local 226 fought hard for the bill to pass, and the efforts succeeded.

“We worked so hard so all of our members could go back to work,” continues Argüello-Kline. “SB386, the ‘Right to Return’ bill, protects their jobs, because we know businesses have to build back to 100% little by little. It won’t be back completely right away, but as more people start coming to Vegas again, our members will start returning to their jobs.”

SB386 includes a few key provisions that protect workers. Businesses employing 30 people or more are required to offer laid-off or furloughed employees the same position (or a similar one) they previously worked.

Employees receiving such an offer must accept or decline within 24 hours, and a worker accepting such an offer has to be ready to begin work within five days. Workers are allowed to decline three times, after which point employers are no longer required to extend any more return offers.

With worker protections in place at the legal level, casino properties in Vegas and across the US are making moves to ensure a healthy and safe work environment. And while that environment looks similar to the way it did in early 2020 or prior, there have also been various changes.

What has changed?

Casino properties across the country experienced sweeping changes directly caused by Covid-19, many requiring massive shifts, and some occurring virtually overnight. In other words, the pandemic hit fast and hard, then continued to change the way casinos function in the long term. This forced properties to make tough decisions in order to move forward and adapt.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, the majority of our team here at Ilani was furloughed for 70 days,” says Al Muma, vice president of human resources and guest experience at Ilani Resort in Ridgefield, Washington.

“During the closure, we had the opportunity to spend time and money on adapting our work and guest environment so we could reopen in the safest manner possible,” Muma continues. “After the reopening, we have had the good fortune to maintain consistent staffing levels between 75-80% of pre-pandemic levels.

“We did not refill vacant positions which kept us in line with actual business volume needs without the need for permanent or long-term furloughs.”

Ilani, like so many other properties, experienced instant changes when Covid-19 hit hardest.

The nature of the pandemic created a veil of uncertainty. Operations that could otherwise forecast their performance and revenue with some accuracy were left unsure of exactly when - or if - business as usual would resume.

Luckily, we’re on that path. Returning to work in and of itself is a significant shift from the temporary normal of the past year and a half, though, and employers like Ilani are making adjustments to ensure their employees feel safe in the workplace.

In response to the pandemic, employers now have Covid-19-specific training programs in place. Ilani’s Muma shares a number of initiatives aimed at maintaining a safe environment for employees and customers.

It has established a health and safety committee that meets regularly, and ensures the venue follows local protocols. It has ended smoking in the venue. It has worked with health bodies to institute an onsite wellness check program and contact tracing, as well as offering paid leave to staff should they be exposed to the virus in the workplace.

“We most recently implemented a vaccination campaign for all Ilani team members and partner vendors by offering a $100 gas card incentive for team members that are fully vaccinated,” Muma continues. “We also offered onsite vaccinations for team members. We also have an anonymous complaint hotline team members can route suggestions and/or concerns.

“We continue to monitor team member sentiment through an annual engagement survey, as well pulse surveys throughout the year. We also implemented a flexible work program for some of our administrative and management team members. In addition to regular leave programs, we instituted Covid-19 related leaves and paid quarantine for work-related possible exposures.”

In addition to these myriad programs and services, Muma also notes that Ilani has a robust communications system in place that keeps employees informed and up to date on the latest health and safety protocols.

At Boyd Gaming, employee training now includes a 30-minute Covid-specific overview. Chris Smith, vice president of human resources for the operator says: “So as [employees] start with the company, they're required to go through this training, they also receive training within their department for their specific department expectations.

“So each department is a little bit different, depending on what it is, but that is a requirement of starting.”

But Covid-related safety measures go beyond training sessions, Smith adds.

“We frequently communicate to our team members about everything from more education around vaccinations to what they can do to protect themselves in and out of the workplace,” he explains. “[We’re] making sure that our team members have all the proper equipment that they need to be safe while they're performing their jobs.

“I think from that perspective, we've done an excellent job as a company to make sure that our team members are well aware of how we’re supporting them and the importance of safety in a work environment.”

With these measures in place (and more undoubtedly on the way as business evolves in Covid’s wake), Argüello-Kline notes that employees generally feel safe returning to work.

“Our members, they have a lot of information about Covid-19,” she says. “They know the vaccination gives you a lot more protection, and that they can wear a mask if they choose. Some companies even offer onsite vaccinations. There are a lot of challenges with misinformation about Covid and the vaccine, and Local 226 and companies that employ our members are working to ensure they have accurate information as they return to work. Our community is so important, and we want to take good care of our members and their families.”

While existing employees are given training, programs, and occasional onsite vaccinations to foster a healthy workplace, casinos are still on the hunt for new talent. And given the job market, they have to earn it.

A candidate’s market

When it comes to finding new talent in the casino and hospitality industry, workers are enjoying a plethora of open positions. While SB386 requires employers in Nevada to offer workers the same position or an equivalent, competitors may be waiting in the wings to bring in new talent as staffing and recruitment ramps up.

At Boyd, Smith hopes the promise of ample opportunity will draw workers to the company.

“We have opportunities, I think, in terms of retraining all the time, in terms of people wanting to expand their horizons. Some of that's informal and some is formal.

“On the informal side, it's things like shadowing, and project-based work or working in a different department on a couple of shifts to learn something new. You know, that kind of stuff happens all the time, informally in a lot of our businesses and that's really kind of the entry point, if you will, into a new position. We have a pretty good transfer policy and terms; we have given team members the opportunity to look at other opportunities.”

At Ilani Resort, relying on existing talent can be a gateway to hiring sprees. “We are looking at updating the frequency of our current incentive bonus program as a means to offer gratitude for a job well done during a very difficult time,” Muma says. “We currently have a team member job referral program. Our latest hot jobs position for cooks is $500 for the referring team member and $500 for the new team member once hired.

“In our regional market here in the Pacific Northwest I am only aware of just one casino in our area that was offering sign-on bonuses,” he continues. “We recently completed a local competitive market survey to review this. This is something we continue to monitor. We are looking at the viability of shift differentials and shift times.”

The long-term impact

Right now, the casino industry is on the mend, recovering from a health crisis on a global scale. “Business as usual” barely exists in a world ravaged by a historic pandemic.

Employers and workers alike acknowledge that “normal” may be a thing of the past. Instead, we’re establishing new standard practices that stem from Covid, whether directly or indirectly. And even as the industry strives to get “back” to normal, they’re also looking forward, into an unpredictable future.

The changes to casino operations, though spurred by Covid, will ripple far beyond health and safety programs.

“[We’re going to] reassess the needs for person-to-person meetings, classroom training, and recruiting, says Muma of Ilani. “The combination of video conferencing and the online training will continue to be viable formats after the pandemic. [We’ll also] assess current rewards programming and frequency of rewards. We’re currently determining the need for a more robust training program for less qualified candidates.”

As health procedures in a nearly post-Covid world become standard, so too will things like video conferencing or education initiatives for workers looking to break into the casino industry.

“Everybody’s got to feel comfortable about their staffing,” says Smith. “Then I think it's taking a deep breath and going, ‘How is this impacting us the long run?’ I'd like to see where we're at in 90 days, maybe by the end of the year, and it may look very different. First and foremost is that you [have] to keep the people you hire, you’ve got to create a culture where people want to come to work, and people want to stay and people want to contribute.”

For Argüello-Kline and Local 226, preparing for the future can only be done one way: “We learned throughout this year that companies have to act as a partner, and we have to be prepared for anything to happen. One thing we know as a union is that--even through a global pandemic--we can all protect one another if we work together.”