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Desert Companion

Part of the Job

sexualharrasment.jpg

Sexual Harrassment
Illustration by Brent Holmes

The gaming industry’s sexual harassment policies are well-intended, but they don’t change the ugly reality on the casino floor

Although it was officially referred to as “Overnight,” graveyard lived up to its nickname. Unoccupied slot machines lined the casino floor like tombstones. Empty glasses bore witness to a livelier time, earlier in the evening, when tourists crowded around dice tables or cheered after winning bets. I already knew that if I wanted to make any money on grave, I had to consistently revisit each plot, peer around Wheel of Fortune and Walking Dead machines in hopes of encountering a player. Many appeared just like Fred, as ghostly apparitions shrouded in cigarette smoke.

After I set down his whiskey, he took a long look at me. “Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

It was a habitual response I offered to all guests who inquired. I always hoped it would detour the conversation, but after five years of cocktailing, I had learned that regardless of the season — the early springs of committed relationships or the lonely winters of singledom — the “I have a boyfriend” escape strategy never actually worked.

Fred promised, “Well, I would treat you better.”

He unfolded the bills from his money clip and tried to convince me of what a good boyfriend he would be. I reached for his three dollars, a higher tip than most, but he intercepted my hand — complimenting my eyes, my skin, my hair — then finally released my palm and allowed me to take the money.

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As I walked away, I strolled past closed pits and an empty poker room. The place was dead. Nothing unusual for graveyard, particularly a midweek shift during the height of slow season. I thought about my exchange with Fred, wondering how long a handshake should last, then arrived at my final destination, the service bar on the opposite side of the casino.

 

*****

Enduring sexual harassment is so habitual for hospitality workers, it often feels as if it’s just a part of the job, like an item on a side-work checklist: Restock coolers, wipe down trays, refill sugar caddies, get hit on by Fred.

 But it doesn’t just feel that way — the data proves it. The single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the United States is the restaurant and accommodations industry. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the workers who are most likely to fall victim to workplace harassment eerily resemble your standard Las Vegas casino employees. They are low-wage workers. Tipped workers. Immigrant workers. Workers who do not speak English. Workers burdened by intersectional disadvantages, like race and gender. Workers who navigate large power discrepancies at work, such as restaurant servers with their customers. Workers who experience extended isolation on the job, like housekeepers in hotel rooms.

After the allegations against Steve Wynn became national news in 2018, the reality of harassment in casinos finally had its moment in the #MeToo spotlight. Wynn was accused of harassing multiple frontline workers who matched the demographics the data defines — manicurists, massage therapists, cocktail waitresses. Several claimed that Wynn coerced them into unwanted sexual acts. To this day, he has denied the allegations, but his punishments have been surprisingly significant. Forced resignation. The selling of company stock. A potential lifetime ban from the casino industry. A $35 million fine to corporate.

Shortly after Wynn’s resignation, a coworker asked me in the service well: “Do you think he did it?”

I told her with conviction that I did.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I think those women just wanted the money.”

She had worked in the casinos for 16 years and wasn’t leaving anytime soon — a real casino lifer. Her industry experience far outweighed my minuscule career. And maybe she was right, in a way. Most of the times I experienced sexual harassment, I also just wanted the money.

The three dollars from Fred. The five dollars from the poker player who touched my thigh and offered to be my sugar daddy. The 20 percent gratuity from the cabana guest who exposed himself to me when I worked at a luxury pool.

Almost two years later, Wynn’s sexual misconduct scandal led to a unanimous decision in November by the Nevada Gaming Commission to include sexual harassment language in its regulations. The proposed changes reflected existing federal protections, which is why some argued they didn’t go far enough. Regardless, the new amendments went into effect in November. The Gaming Control Board can start requesting compliance plans from casinos in March.

The delayed action by the Nevada Gaming Commission feels like a culmination. Like the industry can now finally move forward from the barrage of bad press and the scrutiny of the national microscope. Although Wynn has his own legal messes yet to clean up, the gaming industry appears to have covered its bases.

It doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment, and they can now prove that on paper.

 

*****

At first, I concluded it wasn’t worth going back. But after 45 minutes with no orders, as I peered into the dark tunnel of the 4-6-a.m. stretch that was always the slowest on graveyard, I headed back to Fred in video poker.

“So, you’re happy with your boyfriend?” he asked.

“Very happy.”

“He turns you on?”

I avoided answering the question and told Fred what a good guy my imaginary boyfriend was. I made up details about his hobbies and his job. Once again, Fred took time reaching into his pocket, as if he had learned from previous exchanges that if he tipped more than a dollar, the cocktail server would always wait.

“Can you do me a favor?” he asked.

I anticipated a request for a paper straw paired with a nostalgic comment about plastic. Or maybe he needed a napkin. His “Hold,” “Draw,” and “Max Bet” buttons were peppered with cigarette ash.

“My pleasure,” I told him.

“Think about me when you’re in the shower.”

I’m not sure what I said after that, but I waited for his reliable three-dollar tip. There were only a few waking souls nearby, and I called out to them for rescue —“Cocktails? Cocktails?” but no one else wanted drinks. They stared, trancelike, into their slot
machines, hypnotized by the jingles of extra spins and bonus games.

I brought Fred two more drinks over the course of the shift. As we talked, I stayed focused on all the things I could buy with three dollars. A gallon of gas. Half a latte. A bag of trail mix. A bottle of shampoo.

 

*****

Power discrepancies are inherent to the hospitality industry. If you take a walk through a casino resort, you can identify hundreds of them, whether between me and Fred, a manicurist and a CEO, a baccarat dealer dropping a player’s cash through a slit, or a housekeeper cleaning up a high roller’s luxury suite.

But strangely, since Wynn’s resignation, conversations about preventing sexual harassment in the casino industry have focused on questions of policy rather than questions of power. The focus is misplaced, since workers who rely on gratuities, like the majority of Wynn’s victims, are those with the least amount of power — and the most to lose by reporting. The historic origins of hospitality culture, rooted in exploitative labor practices, are another factor that still shapes the dynamic between frontline workers and those they serve. In the subculture of hospitality, tipped workers know that customers always come first. Similarly, guests know that their actions will rarely, if ever, be questioned.

Unionization has been foundational in strengthening casino workers through higher wages, set schedules, and career longevity, but still, sexual harassment persists. In their first contract negotiations of 2018, the housekeepers of Culinary 226 — some of the highest paid in the country — requested to be issued panic buttons on the job. Like some on the Nevada Gaming Board, they advocated for stronger sexual harassment language in their collective bargaining agreements, a crucial, but vague appeal.

At certain points in my casino industry career, I have been protected with the shield of the union. I wasn’t when I served Fred, but I’m doubtful my response would have changed. Because whenever I experience harassment at work, I perform a split-second, cost-benefit analysis of how to proceed. Has the behavior happened before? Am I serving a regular or a weekend tourist? Are they a high roller or a budget traveler? Have they been tipping red chips or green?

My answers to these questions evolve with every exchange. But they’ve never led me to decide to file a sexual harassment claim. It’s not that I concluded those moments weren’t harassment — they were. But the prospect of navigating a complex corporate bureaucracy to file a complaint while experiencing emotional and financial vulnerability was far too daunting — in some cases, too terrifying — to pursue. Policies alone were not enough to empower me to act.

This is the vast disconnect between those at the top who enact policies and those who experience harassment at the bottom. In terms of power, it’s difficult to imagine how the same policies that are designed to protect the interests of a multibillion-dollar industry can equally serve the people at the bottom with the least amount of organizational agency. Yes, policy is important for weeding out harassers — Steve Wynn, a problematic manager, a guest who gets out of line — but without more radical cultural changes, hospitality will continue to remain an ideal environment for harassment to thrive.

 

*****

Back in the service well, where employees leaned against coolers and checked their cellphones, I set my tray down and transferred Fred’s three dollars into my tip cup.

“I saw you met Fred,” my coworker said.

“You know him?”

She nodded. “He’s here a couple nights a week. We all take turns.”

She shared her Fred stories. His request of me was not an unusual one. Apparently, he wanted all of us to think about him when we were in the shower. The uncomfortable few minutes I chatted with him was, in context of my coworker’s stories, brief.

A week later, I overheard another coworker talking about Fred in the employee dining room. She described the immediate discomfort she felt whenever she discovered he was sitting in her section. She used the phrase I know this is part of the job more than once.

Because I was on extra board and worked varied shifts, overnight only came up in my schedule once every few weeks. When I finally served Fred again, three months later, I approached his machine with familiarity and caution.

After I set down his drink, he struck up the conversation like clockwork: “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

 

*****

Most of the harassment I’ve experienced working in casinos isn’t extreme. It’s like Fred’s: Gradual, subtle, and strategic. It can’t quite be categorized as harmless, but neither can it be considered threatening. With repetition, the uneasiness it produces diminishes over time, until it feels more like inconvenience than maltreatment. And because it’s so often diffused over multiple low-wage workers, it can be even more difficult to prove.

Legal definitions of sexual harassment rely on patterns of behavior. In many of the recent high-profile cases — Harvey Weinstein, Steve Wynn, Roger Ailes — it was not any one individual story, but the strikingly similar, collective stories that successfully established the patterns necessary for the law to work.

The law also requires the behavior to be “severe.” Wynn’s behavior qualified as such, but Fred’s behavior likely didn’t. The same skills workers need to excel at their jobs — social skills, physical appearance, emotional warmth — are capitalized on by harassers to continue their behavior without consequences. Hospitality training focuses primarily on teaching workers how to say yes, how to create a guest experience, how to anticipate guests’ needs at all times. It’s not a shock that the same default training kicks in during moments of questionable treatment. No one has trained us on how to tell a guest: You can’t treat me this way.

If I were to outline the pattern of sexual harassment in my working life, it would stretch over eight years, four properties, two restaurants, two lounges, three pool decks, and two casino floors. After absorbing so much harassment, my perspective has been fundamentally skewed so much that I don’t always recognize severe behavior when I see it. Although I don’t remember the names, dates, or details, the resulting feeling was always the same: powerlessness.

It’s a big claim. I would have no idea how to format it on sexual harassment paperwork.

I’ve been asked whether anything is different since the Wynn scandal. I can concede that yes, there have been some changes.

The Nevada Gaming Commission’s new regulations extend jurisdiction to include non-casino staff, such as  vendors and suppliers. Of the collective board members of the major casino operations in Las Vegas, 11 out of 57 are now women.

A few months after his resignation, Steve Wynn moved out of his on-site villa and purchased a $13 million, 13,000-square-foot mansion.

It was Las Vegas’ most expensive home sale of 2018.

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