‘We’re Still Struggling’: Las Vegas’ Economy Is Fun Mirror of Strange American Conditions | US economy

IIn the revolving restaurant at the top of the Strat Hotel and Casino, guests can once again enjoy $20 cocktails or a $90 oyster show for two while taking in sweeping views of downtown. Las vigas From its historical tower. After the Covid shutdown, Vegas is back in business. But not everyone seems happy, or sure how long that will last.

On a recent afternoon, far from the hotel’s more than 1,000 feet (350 meters) elevation, a few hundred guest service workers gathered in a nearby parking lot. In the 90-degree Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) heat, loudspeakers told workers they must fight for contracts and improved controls for rising rents. “Sí, se puede“Yes, we can,” cried the powerful Nevada Culinary Workers’ Union.

While the housekeepers, cooks and other workers were singing and cheering during the meeting, there was no deep sense of anger about their working conditions and the direction of the economy.

A quick survey of Nevada’s economic statistics may indicate that life has improved recently for its members. The unemployment rate reached 30% in Las Vegas in April 2020 when Covid shut down the city – the highest rate in the country. Now it’s 5%, above the national average but still a huge improvement.

Las Vegas has been on its way lately. Few cities have been financially hard hit by the pandemic. Now the tables are opened again, gambling revenues are soaring to new heights, hotel occupancy rates are up, and conference members are back in town. But the mood is tense. Workers after workers said they are still feeling the effects of employer cuts during the pandemic and are now struggling because inflation has driven up prices and wages have failed to keep pace.

“Everything goes up. Gas, food, rent, everything,” said Gladys Blanco, a housekeeper in Bellagio. “But not our wages. It’s getting better for companies but not for us: we’re still struggling.”

A woman in red sunglasses holds a sign calling for unity.
Gladys Blanco, a housekeeper at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, attends a city culinary union meeting. Photograph: Michaela Whitmore/The Guardian

In many ways, Vegas holds a hilarious mirror to the very weird US economy. Nationally, the unemployment rate is 3.6%, close to a 50-year low. Consumers are spending and wages are rising. However, supply chain problems persist, companies complain that they cannot get staff, workers are angry at the way they have been treated during and after the pandemic, and tourists are unhappy about shortages and poor service.

Everyone is worried about inflation – which is rising faster than many people’s wages – and interest rates. Looming all of this is the risk of a recession—we’ll likely feel it first in a free-spending city, which is drying up just as quickly as water spilled on the hot Las Vegas strip in less difficult times.

“The situation is becoming more sensitive every day,” said Brian Gordon, director of Las Vegas-based Applied Analysts. “Las Vegas was ground zero for what the pandemic means: casinos have never been closed,” he said. As the recovery begins to take hold, global economic factors are taking hold. He said global inflation, supply chain challenges and rising interest rates are all putting downward pressure on spending. “It’s a very unique time.”

In five short months, Joe Biden’s oddly good/bad economics will determine the US midterm elections — especially important in the swing state of Nevada, which narrowly backed the president in 2020. But bigger tensions will remain. The pandemic has highlighted the division between American workers and their bosses, a division that has created wave of union organizing We haven’t seen it in a generation – and that divide seems to have only widened since the pandemic was unofficially declared “over”.

This lack of confidence is widely felt across the United States. About 42% of Americans told Gallup that they had done so “very upset” The size and impact of major companies in 2022, up from 36% in 2019.

People wearing red shirts outside at a rally
Culinary workers union supporters participate in a rally in Las Vegas. Photograph: Michaela Whitmore/The Guardian

At the union caucus, workers argued that their employers had exploited the pandemic to lay them off and now wanted to call them up on short shifts to save money, even as business boomed.

James Loreto, 51, has worked as a food server at the Mandalay Bay Hotel for 21 years. He was laid off in March 2020 and now, while he’s officially back in action, he’s now on call. Some weeks it works two days, sometimes five days. “I have to sit by the phone. I can’t do anything,” he told the audience. “All that time, all those years—blood, sweat, tears—and I still struggled to make hours at work every week.”

Like many of the workers at the rally, Loreto said business appears to be doing well “after Covid,” but the workers aren’t much.

“The casino is full on weekends and business is resuming, yet there are still many of us struggling to make payments for our healthcare coverage,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, business executives “still sell, buy, expand, and use their cash so they can drive with nice, sharp looks while you and I are here in this hot weather.”

A graph showing how the average wage in the United States has fallen steadily throughout the pandemic after hitting its highest level in early 2020.

The Culinary Union — which represents 60,000 members in Las Vegas and Reno — is pushing for legislation to limit rent increases, which have reached 40% in the city. It is a force to be reckoned with, who knocked on 650,000 doors in the past elections and Claiming credit for Biden’s narrow victory in swing state.

It will come into effect to support progressive candidates again in the upcoming elections, in the hope of bringing about structural change. Similar battles will break out across America as the election cycle turns faster.

In the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, there are similar concerns about the economy but very different views of what went wrong and what can be done about it.

man with red flag
A culinary union supporter takes part in a rally in Las Vegas. Photograph: Michaela Whitmore/The Guardian

Its president, Mary Beth Swald, will not forget how the pandemic ended Vegas. “I’ve never seen it like this before. It was actually a very scary and sad time,” she said. “Everything is shut down. Locals were riding around on their bikes in the strip. It was surreal,” not a word to be taken lightly of a woman who lives in a city with a fake volcano, pyramid, and wedding chapels full of Elvis impersonators.

Now that the lights are back, Vegas is still going through weird times. “Demand is back, but a lot of restaurants, bigger properties, don’t have staff to be able to handle the volume of demand,” she said.

Tourists agree. Friends Simon Payne and Nick Wadia, from the UK for a golf and gambling vacation, were very disappointed with the hospitality in Vegas. “We haven’t seen a housemaid once. They said that when they interacted with the employees, they were unhelpful and uninformed. They seem really unhappy with their jobs,” Wadia said.

They are also not impressed with the prices. “I paid $8 (£6.40) for a £2.50 (US$3.15) cup of coffee at home. Water was $7.90.” The only thing they found cheap was gas: It’s now more than $5 a gallon in Nevada, It’s a huge uptick for US consumers, up from $3.60 a gallon a year ago, but still significantly cheaper than the UK.

A man in a red shirt poses for a photo
James Larretto has worked as a food server at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas for 21 years. He lost his job in March 2020 and is now back at work, despite calling shifts. Photograph: Michaela Whitmore/The Guardian

Sewald described the hiring problem in Vegas as “disturbing.” The government’s stimulus checks were over, but, she said, people didn’t want to work. Childcare was a big issue and the room was working to help with that. But something bigger may happen. Employers anticipate that the pandemic has rearranged priorities for many, especially millennials.

“I think there is a certain segment of the population that says that work and money are not a priority for us,” she said. “I talk to our members and they say we can’t find anyone who comes to work and takes on these jobs.”

She thinks there may be worse in the future. The staff shortage has been exacerbated by inflation, which has hit small businesses the most.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” she said. “When you think about inflation, the supply chain, and labor force shortages, what else could you have? The cost of doing business went up exponentially and immediately; now, with inflation, those costs have gone up even more.”

For Swald, the answer is less regulation, not more. The House successfully lobbied for the elimination of 85 bills it says would have increased costs to business in the last legislative session, and is willing to do so again. “Many lawmakers have good faith but do not understand the unintended consequences of the legislation.”

The Chamber’s position will put it at odds with the Culinary Union in November, yet another battle between employers and employees alike grappling with the same issues but fighting on opposite sides.

Whichever party wins the November elections will inherit a divided economic landscape like the political one, and the economy may turn for the worse.

Larito fears for his children’s future. “Oh man,” he said, “this is making me cry.” “I have 18 and 21. Their dreams are being destroyed, something has to be done. I see a lot of empty houses, people are displaced, people are sleeping in cars… We have to do something and we have to do something now.”