- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Las Vegas has gone from the fastest-growing city in the United States with the top convention industry to a neon-lit repository of unemployed workers since September 11.
As the Bellagio Hotel and Casino's lighted fountains sway in synchronization with popular tunes, about 15,000 laid-off workers walk the sidewalks along with the remaining tourists and conventioneers who still come to the city.
Washington residents see hope in the near future as the war economy compensates for the loss of tourists. Las Vegas, however, cannot rely on government contracting to backstop a slump in the hospitality and tourism industries.
"Like all tourist destinations, we've certainly felt an impact from the September 11 tragic attack," said Erika Brandvik, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
The tourism industry has responded by lowering prices for hotel rooms, entertainment and other attractions, hoping visitors will return for good deals.
"The rates far surpass anything that's been offered before," Mrs. Brandvik said.
Among the visitors last week were about 1,000 union members attending the AFL-CIO's annual convention at the Paris Hotel and Casino. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney tried to reassure laid-off workers in Las Vegas and nationwide that "you can count on us."
What he did not explain was how he would turn around an economic downturn that has resulted in a $78.7 million loss in convention business for Las Vegas and 75,000 fewer visitors since September 11. Among the city's 50,000 members of the Culinary Workers union, 30 percent have been laid off. Most of them work in the hotels and casinos along Las Vegas Boulevard.
Even Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer, warned that Las Vegas would be one of the last to benefit from any resurgence from recession. He called the recession that began in March, and deepened after the September 11 attack, "the worst we've seen in decades."
Luxuries like gambling, restaurants and hotels are among the last expenses people add to their budgets as their finances improve.
Not far from the casinos where photographs of big gambling winners on the walls entice guests to bet their fortunes, a huge tent was set up in a parking lot by local union leaders and social services.
In October, until the flood of laid-off workers tapered off, it served as a one-stop center for unemployed persons.
They asked government agencies and the United Way for help to avoid evictions, to find a new job or for continuing unemployment insurance benefits.
The AFL-CIO's assurances of assistance for laid-off workers had special appeal in Las Vegas, where 20 percent of the work force is unionized, compared with 13.5 percent nationally.
Some of them spoke about their plight during the convention.
"I was feeling really good about my job," said Mary Gabriel, a former change attendant at the Mandalay Bay Casino and Hotel.
Last year, her employer gave her an award as the employee of the year during a company banquet. "I never would have thought I would get laid off," she said.
On Sept. 25, she and other employees were given their walking papers. Of the 30 change attendants employed at the Mandalay Bay before September 11, only about 10 full-timers remain, she said.
"It took a lot of people by surprise," Miss Gabriel said. "There are no jobs opening up anywhere."
Abraham Mohamed, an Aladdin Casino worker told about taking a three-month medical leave after surgery in July.
In September, while still on leave, his employer notified him that his job was given "on-call" status, which essentially means no more full-time work. In addition, his health insurance was canceled.
"After my medical leave, I am still working five days a week yet my status is still on-call, meaning I have no insurance at all," he said.
Among visitors to the one-stop center for the unemployed was Katia Whiting, a slot auditor at the Luxor Hotel and Casino who was laid off Sept. 18.
About the same time, her husband, Paul, was laid off from his job as a bellman at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. The Flamingo cut their bellmen from 57 to 33.
The couple has fallen two months behind on their mortgage payments despite job searches that have given them only occasional and part-time employment.
They expect a bleak Christmas for their two children.

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