Although he was laid off, Christopher Flores Atup felt like he had a full-time job — an unpaid one. Atup had been working as a server at Yard House in Town Square, just a few miles south of the Las Vegas Strip, when the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent business closures on March 17 left him without employment. Darden Restaurants, the company that owns Yard House, compensated staff for a three-week period based on the number of hours worked, but after that, employees were left to fend for unemployment.
“I would call for six hours straight,” Atup says. He had tried to file online, but due to an issue with the website had to reach out by phone. The lines opened up each morning at 8 a.m., so he began calling at 7:50 a.m. The estimated wait time grew longer and longer every day. On some days, the phone didn’t even ring. Finally after six weeks of calling, he got through.
“It felt like the lottery,” Atup says. A single parent of two, he has also applied for WIC. But he is worried about his situation once he is able to return to work, since it will likely be with reduced hours: As of May 9, restaurants in Nevada are allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity with no seating in the bar area.
“I’m guessing there will be less servers on the floor and definitely fewer shifts,” Atup says. “I have been looking into how I will stay on unemployment based on how much I make, but as a server I don’t know how to calculate that based on tips.”
As the nonessential business closure that began in March starts its tentative steps into the very early stages of reopening, many Las Vegas food and beverage employees are still waiting on unemployment from claims filed nearly two months ago. On May 2, the unemployment rate in Nevada reached a record high of 22 percent. Approximately 440,800 individual claims have been filed.
Online groups of Las Vegas restaurant and bar employees struggling to get unemployment are filled with screenshots of five-hour wait times. People describe committing to these long holds every day for up to seven weeks straight. Some cheer each other on, others describe finally getting through as if it’s an urban legend — a thing that happened to a friend of a friend, but no one anyone actually knows for sure. In addition to long wait times on the phone, out of work employees express frustration over issues with the unemployment website, including glitches requesting that claimants fill out information that has already been provided and unclear reasons for claim denials (“personal reasons” and “non-pay due to initial hold payment”). All of these website issues inevitably send claimants back to the phone line, where another day on hold awaits.
Gregory Mercado, a bartender at Sushi Roku at the Forum Shops at Caesars, considers himself “super lucky.” He was laid off early and was able to get unemployment, as well as the $600 back payments provided to claimants through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Mercado’s boyfriend, however, was also laid off and has not received anything.
“His case is still pending, and he hasn’t received answers,” Mercado says. “There are people who haven’t gotten it who have been laid off since March.”
On May 11, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed an emergency directive to help with staffing related to unemployment claims. The directive includes measures like hiring temporary staff and rehiring former employees. As the unemployment claims rise closer to the 500,000 mark, Sisolak hopes that an influx of staff will help process claims faster. The emergency directive will apply through the end of 2020.
“I have heard stories from many Nevadans who are experiencing issues trying to process claims, and our staff at DETR has been working as quickly as possible to process the unprecedented number of claims,” Gov. Sisolak said in a press release. “This directive will help onboard more staff quickly to help bring insurance benefits to more Nevadans faster.”
For many Las Vegas food and beverage employees, this doesn’t inspire much hope.
“The governor says that they’re looking into hiring more people, that he is going to start hiring people,” Gregory Mercado says. “This has been going on for 50-something days now. It’s kind of late to start.”