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Nevada adds protections for hospitality workers — while shielding businesses from liability

NBC News logo NBC News 8/7/2020 Anita Hassan
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Nevada lawmakers passed a hotly debated bill this week that mandates health and safety protections for hospitality workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but at the same time shields many businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Senate Bill 4, which passed at the end of a special session Wednesday night and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak, requires that hospitality workers — a significant number of whom work in Las Vegas — returning to their jobs be tested for COVID-19 and that they be given at least 10 days of paid time off if they contract the virus. But it also gives more legal immunity to almost all businesses, government agencies and nonprofits if they follow required health protocols. That will make it harder for workers and customers to win coronavirus-related wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits.

At least a dozen other states have passed legislation shielding businesses from COVID-19 liability, including Georgia, Utah and Louisiana, according to the National Law Review.

a group of people walking down the street: Caesars Entertainment Inc. Locations Ahead Of Earnings Figures (Roger Kisby / Bloomberg via Getty Images file) © Roger Kisby Caesars Entertainment Inc. Locations Ahead Of Earnings Figures (Roger Kisby / Bloomberg via Getty Images file)

The move in Nevada came under fire by advocacy groups and trial attorneys, who said the liability protections make it harder for workers to hold employers accountable. The bill also faced criticism for offering protections only for hospitality workers, not those in other industries.

“It’s unfortunately clear as ever that the influence of corporations takes precedence over the lives of working families,” the Nevada Workers Coalition, which includes about two dozen labor unions and civil rights groups, said in a statement.

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The bill’s passage was hailed as a victory by the Culinary Workers Union, the state’s largest and most politically influential union, which has spent months calling for state officials to protect hospitality workers. The bill also requires more frequent cleaning of elevator buttons, key cards and other high-touch areas in hotels and casino resorts in Reno and Las Vegas and regular inspections of those resorts by state health officials. The workers’ safety portion of the bill mirrored language written by the Culinary Union, which proposed naming the bill for Adolfo Fernandez, a Caesars Palace utility porter and Culinary Union member who died after contracting the virus in June.

Since March, union officials say that 32 Culinary and Bartender Union workers or their immediate family members have died from COVID-19 and that 352 have been hospitalized with the virus.

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“Senate Bill 4 is a first-in-the-nation legislation that will protect all workers in the hospitality industry in Las Vegas and Reno — wall-to-wall, front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house, union and nonunion, worker and manager — from the Bellagio to Motel 6,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, said in statement. A Culinary Union spokeswoman said the union did not have control over the business liability protections being added to the bill.

Union officials say the worker protections are essential given the uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases since casinos began reopening on June 4. According to state data, 53,557 people in Nevada had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, up from 8,688 at the end of May. Since March, 862 people have died.

The bill requires hotels and casinos to notify employees within 24 hours if they were in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.

a group of people standing in front of a sign: Mariza Rocha (Courtesy Mariza Rocha) © Courtesy Mariza Rocha Mariza Rocha (Courtesy Mariza Rocha)

Mariza Rocha, 40, a utility porter at The Strat Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, said that after she tested positive for the coronavirus in July, she did not hear from her employers for a week, even after she called them multiple times. Golden Entertainment, which operates The Strat, did not immediately comment.

“I felt so alone,” Rocha said.

When she didn’t hear back from her employer, she became anxious, wondering if her co-workers had been told that she was sick. Rocha was relieved to hear about the bill’s passage.

“This is going to bring a lot of people peace, so they don’t feel like that,” she said. “The point is not to get COVID, but to prevent it, and I think this is going to do that.”

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