Behind Las Vegas's Glitter, Heavy Losses and Layoffsgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
October 19, 2001
Behind Las Vegas's Glitter, Heavy Losses and Layoffs
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
AS VEGAS, Oct. 18 — Although the Bellagio's brilliantly lighted fountains still dance magically each night and the gondoliers at the Venetian still serenade tourists with arias, this city's tourism machine has sputtered badly since Sept. 11.
Business has fallen so sharply that the casino hotels have laid off enough housekeepers, waiters, bellhops, receptionists and croupiers to populate a good-size town, 15,000 in all.
The steep drop in visitors and the spike in unemployment have many people here questioning whether boom times in Las Vegas — for the last decade the nation's fastest growing city — are a thing of the past. What is clear is that this city of showgirls, neon and carefree risk, this epicenter of entertainment, has had the wind knocked out of it.
The hotel layoffs here, industry experts say, are the largest in the nation although in New York, San Francisco and Washington, hotels have also experienced huge losses in business, with many laying off one- fourth of their staff or more.
On the famed Strip here, the pain is largely invisible. The roulette wheels still whir, the out-of-towners still feed the slots and the $7.49 all- you-can-eat buffet lunches are still served. But each morning, several hundred yards from the Strip, under a giant tent that sprouted two weeks ago, there is a huge and highly visible outpouring of suffering.
Starting around 7 a.m., hundreds of jobless people mass around the tent to seek help from government agencies and the United Way. They are desperate to avoid evictions, to avoid having their cars repossessed and their lights shut off.
"It's very depressing what's happening," said Nolberto Dela Pena, a laid-off casino janitor. "Sometimes we lose faith."
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Dela Pena and his wife, Anicia, were milling around the tent, seeking help because their landlord planned to evict them that afternoon. Mr. Dela Pena, an immigrant from the Philippines, said he was still not receiving the $248 weekly unemployment insurance check promised him, adding that he doubted he could support his family on such a modest amount. With his slumbering 11-month-old son slumped over his right shoulder, he said he had no idea where his family would live, if evicted.
At the tent Mr. Dela Pena was told that the United Way had no money left for rent assistance; it had already given away $500,000 to 790 others facing eviction. After hearing the Dela Penas' plight, the County Department of Social Services agreed to come up with $759 to cover the October rent and the late fee.
"I've been around a long time, but I've never seen anything like this," said Garth Winckler, president of the United Way of Southern Nevada. "The reality out here is a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck. We're not used to rainy days because the economy just kept booming along. People thought it could never happen to us."
In the two weeks after Sept. 11, so many unemployed people were running around Las Vegas to so many government offices seeking aid that the hotel workers' union proposed setting up a tent in the union's parking lot so that workers could visit a dozen agencies at once. County officials provided the tent, which now means one-stop shopping for the newly needy.
D. Taylor, the union's staff director, said the social safety net was inadequate to handle such an explosion of need. Unemployment insurance, he said, is too meager for people to pay $500 to $700 a month to continue their health insurance.
Estimating that half the 15,000 laid-off workers are immigrants, Mr. Taylor criticized the 1996 federal welfare law for barring most legal immigrants from receiving food stamps. "We have a situation where a lot of unemployed immigrants cannot get food stamps even though they have worked hard, paid taxes and done everything legally."
In the days immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, with flights canceled and Americans terrified, the occupancy rate at many hotels here plunged by 30 percent or more, and many companies canceled conferences. Occupancy has since crept up, approaching its normal October rate for weekends of 98 percent, but it is still well below the normal midweek level of 90 percent midweek. To lure back tourists, many hotels have chopped their room rates in half.
"You get this double whammy of lower occupancy and lower room rates," said Alan Feldman, a senior vice president at MGM Mirage, which runs six casino hotels here. "Business levels fell across the board in every category: entertainment, hotel, retail, food and beverage and, let's not forget, gambling. Occupancy has rebounded somewhat, but much of the rest has not."
Last month, MGM Mirage laid off 6,000 of its 37,000 employees here. In recent days, it has called back more than 1,000 for mostly part-time work.
While waiting inside the tent, also desperate for rent assistance, Sherry Unson said she would be delighted if her former employer offered her even part-time work. Ms. Unson, mother of a 4-year-old and 8-month- old, was laid off after working for six years as a restaurant cashier at the Golden Nugget. And her boyfriend has lost his job as a limousine driver.
"It's hard having to pay rent, pay for the car, buy milk," Ms. Unson said. "I worry, really worry, about the kids and whether we'll be able to keep a roof over our head."
Sounding more optimistic than many of the unemployed, the city's visitors and convention authority predicted a rebound. Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, agreed.
"The thing to remember is that leisure and entertainment suffer less in bad economic times than other industries," said Mr. Rothman. "You know all the people who pay their cable bill before they pay their water bill. We live in a self-indulgent culture in which people think of leisure as a right not a privilege. So people will continue to come."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 18, 2001
Seeing as how Las Vegas is such an airline-dependent town, this all figures.
-- BIg Cheese (email@example.com), October 19, 2001.