On Monday, Major League Baseball owners approved a reopening plan under which the season would start around the Fourth of July and consist of about 82 games, almost exactly half of a regular, 162-game season. If players agree, the schedule would be close to normal in the sense that teams will have home stands and road trips and three- and four-game series like they always do.
The one thing that will be different, of course: no fans. If you’ve seen midnight Korean baseball airing on ESPN in the absence of sports here, you’ve seen what that looks like. It’s pretty weird.
That may be a bummer for fans, but it’s much more than that for tens of thousands of stadium workers who’ve lost part-time and full-time jobs. So spare a thought for the Americans who depend on public gatherings for their livings and who will be among the very last people to return their jobs at hotels, casinos, and resorts along with arenas, ballparks and stadiums. Even in Las Vegas, where they’re talking about starting to open the Strip by the end of this month (and potentially hosting the whole NBA season in a “bubble” there), it seems unlikely that the casinos will draw their usual traffic, meaning that workers will be rehired in stages.
Those who are unionized are mostly members of Unite-Here, a union with about 330,000 members that dates back to 1891, originally representing hotel workers. It expanded into ladies’ garment workers and played a role in helping to win labor reforms after the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911. In our time, it’s one of the most successful unions in the country; the famous Las Vegas Culinary Local 226, which has done such an impressive job of organizing the casinos (even Donald Trump’s, in 2016), is part of Unite-Here.
And right now, it may be the single most stressed union in the country.
Just take a look at their six major categories of work. You’ll see that five have been completely wiped out: hotels; airports (they do in-flight meal preparation); food service (at universities, in corporate cafeterias, airports, amusement parks, stadiums, and arenas); gaming; and transportation (Amtrak café car attendants are members). The sixth is textile manufacturing and distribution, the only industry of the group that isn’t at a near-total standstill.
Recently, I talked with D. Taylor, as he’s called, Unite-Here’s president. When we spoke, he told me that 98 percent of the union’s workers across the country were not working. “There's no part of our industry that hasn't gotten crushed,” Taylor says. “I mean, there's no stadiums where we have people working, most hotels are closed, or barely open with no workers. Every commercial casino in the United States is closed. Industrial cafeterias are closed, universities and colleges where we have folks are basically closed. So, the workers we represent, the industries we represent, are basically shut down.”
That’s changed a bit since we talked on April 29, in places like Florida and Georgia, but overall, he said of reopenings, “I think it would be very slow. I think it would be very gradual. I think some workers will never come back because I predict that certain establishments will never reopen.”
The problems are made worse by the fact that many workers can’t get unemployment benefits simply because they can’t get through to the relevant government agencies. Some states, like Florida, have been accused of slow-walking claims or even deliberately withholding them—as of May 12, for example, only 28 percent of the state’s 1.9 million applicants since mid-March have been approved for benefits.
Michele Evermore of the National Employment Law Project says that Florida and North Carolina have been particularly slow. Florida also pays very little. Evermore says the average weekly benefit in the state is $253. Compare that to, say, Washington state’s $1,092 weekly payout.
The problems date, she says, to the early days of Rick Scott’s governorship. “In 2011 and 2012, the governor and legislature passed some of the most punishing access restrictions in the U.S.,” Evermore says. “They required everybody to apply online, and the online application had a 45-question initial skills assessment that you had to get through before you could even start applying for the benefit. They’ve had to take that down as well (as applications have surged thanks to the coronavirus), but it’s indicative of how they’ve tried to limit access by making it really hard to get through the online system.”
What people really want, of course, is not higher unemployment benefits. They want to work. But they want to be safe too. “Workers are actually scared about going back to work, and they don't want to have to choose between their job and their life,” Taylor told me. “And you know, we don't have a lot of faith in corporate America doing the right thing. I mean, no better example of that now than just looking at the meatpacking industry, right?”
Leain Vashon: “Like something out of The Twilight Zone”
I spoke with two Unite-Here members for this article. Leain Vashon works as a bell captain at Paris, whose facsimile of the Eiffel Tower punches the Vegas skyline right across the street from the Bellagio. He says he’s in his sixties and has a wife and three children, one older, two of them in college. He’s worked at Paris since it opened in 1999 and has been a union member for 40 years.
He praised Bally’s, which owned Paris then, for hiring experienced workers like him when it opened. “It was a smart move on their part to hire veteran union members to make sure that the hotel opened up and ran smoothly,” Vashon told me. “And that's what we did for that company. We made it very smooth to open up and mentored the new people who had never done this before. So it was pretty cool.”
Vashon loves his job (“I enjoy meeting people from all over the world”). The union gets him a living wage—he wouldn’t say how much, but the average member of Culinary 226 makes $26 an hour with benefits including health care, a pension, educational opportunities, job training, and legal assistance. It’s work with dignity in a country where that has become rarer and rarer.
He had an experience he’ll always remember, he told me, when Paris (now owned by Caesar’s) closed in March. The hotel had stopped accepting new arrivals on Monday, March 16. But many guests were still in the hotel’s nearly 3,000 rooms on its last official day, in the middle of their booked dates. They couldn’t all just be kicked out in one day. So Vashon was part of a skeleton staff whose job it was to check people out of the hotel over the next three days.
“They had already furloughed everybody that Monday, but we needed to get the guests out of the hotel,” Vashon says. “There was only me and like four people to help people to get out of the hotel from Monday through Thursday, to make sure that they had access to a car, to get the luggage down, get them out to the taxis and the limos and the shuttle to the airport and stuff like that.” Those cavernous spaces, always humming with thousands of customers and hundreds of employees dealing cards, mixing drinks, serving food… practically empty. With everyone who was there terrified of getting sick.
“It was like something out of The Twilight Zone,” he recalled. “It was really surreal. There was no food, no room service, no nothing. All the machines were down, but there was lighting, in order to have people be able to see how to get out.”
Vashon hadn’t received any unemployment benefits when we spoke last week; he did finally get through after days of not being able to: “I was on the phone every single morning at eight o'clock for seven days straight. I could never get through.” Right now, he’s living on his savings. He hopes to get back to work this month, but he’s concerned about safety. “First, you’ve got to bring the workers in and train them, show them what you’re going to do. Show them how the protocols are going to work. Here’s your mask. Who’s wearing gloves, who’s sanitizing what. First, you’ve got to do that.”
Aisha Johnson: “I Don’t See It Happening at All”
Aisha Johnson, 47, lives in Philadelphia and works Eagles and Phillies games. At Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play, she works a concession stand. At the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park, she doesn’t work the actual games—she’s part of the crew that comes in after games, or after long home stands, and cleans and repairs the concession equipment.
“After a home stand is over, our department cleans the concession stands and gets the building back in order,” Johnson says. “We thoroughly have to clean everything down, break things down, get them back in order for the next home stand. You may have a pizza oven that’s been in use the whole week. We take it apart. Make certain we get the residue out from it.”
She’s been doing this for 10 years, not for the Eagles and Phillies but for Aramark, a major concessions corporation that contracts with many stadiums and arenas. As with Vashon, the union ensures that she makes a living wage between the two venues, and though the work is somewhat seasonal, she normally gets a regular paycheck every week, she says. She’s also a shop steward for her local, which keeps her more involved in events than she might otherwise be. But with no baseball season yet, she hasn’t worked since the last Eagles home game in January, a wild-card playoff round loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Johnson is the mother to four children, two grown and out of the house, and a 16-year-old and 18-year-old still at home. She, too, was living on savings. When we spoke, she hadn’t been able to get through to the unemployment office. Do you think, I asked her, that spectators will be coming back to ballparks at all this baseball season? “I don’t… I don’t see that happening at all,” she said.
Taylor: “Rats in a Lab”
On May 5, Taylor and other union officials, including Culinary’s Geoconda Arguello-Kline, held a Zoom press conference laying out their conditions to the Vegas casinos for reopening. “Gaming is a privileged license,” Taylor said. “There are certain things you have to do, to live up to, to hold that license. We don’t think it should be any different with this reopening.” His members, he said, must not be viewed as “rats in a lab.”
He listed four conditions: testing for all workers, paid for by the employer, and thermal testing at the door for all guests; provision of proper PPE on a daily basis and proper social distancing; enhanced cleaning; and state and municipal enforcement.
I asked Caesar’s Entertainment, which owns several strip hotels including Caesar’s Palace and the Paris, where Leain Vashon works, for comment on these demands, and a spokesperson emailed back: “Creating an appropriate work and guest environment at our properties, with enhanced health and safety protocols, is a priority for Caesars Entertainment. Caesars intends to comply with applicable health and safety directives from state government and public health officials when our Nevada properties reopen, as we have throughout this public health emergency.”
We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, there’s an election to think about, for this very political union. That Nevada has turned appreciably blue in recent years is in no small part a result of the organizing the union has done in the state. Taylor says the union is now trying to do the same in Arizona. As for November, he says, “we think Florida is the key action.”
But he’s more focused right now on his members. He thinks when the dust settles, whenever that is, things could break well for the union. “Before this all broke, the union movement was as popular as it's been in the last 40 years,” he said. “I don’t think that that will change, and people go, ‘Well, with high unemployment, people would be desperate just to have a job.’ Well, the largest growth of the union movement was during the Great Depression. Right? Yeah. And we’re going to be in a depression.”
It may work out that way. Or, some employers may seize the opportunity to break unions. Which way that goes will also depend on who’s president next year. In the meantime, workers like Aisha Johnson will have to wait, and wait.