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Nevada's Work Force Still Heavily Impacted By COVID-19

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jose Lopez has spent most of his career behind a bar, serving drinks to customers from all over the country.

JOSE LOPEZ: Being a bartender is the greatest thing. If you like what you do and you put so much into it, it is the best job out there.

SIMON: He worked at Main Street Station, a casino on the Las Vegas Strip, for 23 years.

LOPEZ: Main Street Station's one of those casinos who - everybody is so warm with the customers. And it's like a family. Everybody knows everybody. And when we see a customer we haven't seen before, we're trying to know him. And those people come back again. The Hawaiians are the primary customers that we have on Main Street - that we used to have on Main Street - and not only the Hawaiians, but - 'cause when you create that connection with a customer, they come from all over the country, to be honest, from Boston, from Massachusetts, from Michigan, from Ohio. So that's one of the things that I love the most I'm missing right now.

SIMON: Casinos, hotels and restaurants shut down in Las Vegas in March last year as much of the country went under stay-at-home orders. No tourists, no business. And a few months later, Jose Lopez was laid off.

LOPEZ: Oh, my God. At the beginning of the pandemic, you don't sleep much because you're not used to this, and you don't know what's going to happen. And it drains you every day. You get a text like - and the noise of the phone, and you wait. You hope that that be the company who is calling you. I used to plan my vacations every six months or year and go someplace else. This is not the case now. We just get this little money from the unemployment, pay the bills, try to squeeze every dollar you have and go on with your life every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Some casinos have reopened with limited capacity, but Main Street Station is still closed. It's not clear when it may reopen. Jose Lopez continues to wait. He's gotten some help from the Culinary Union, which has provided some meals. Nearly half of their workers, who are mostly Latino and immigrants, are in a similar situation - without work, anxious and hurting. Jose Lopez has been looking for another bartending job, but he's 59. He wouldn't have seniority at a new place.

LOPEZ: It will take me years to come back and have the quality of shift that I had before. I mean, I don't know anybody who will just jump out and go start anyplace else. I feel like I haven't done anything to - anything wrong to lose my job. It was a pandemic who come in. And I'm going to go now and leave my job there for somebody else? When you go to someplace else, it's so hard to start. They put you on the bottom of the list. And it takes you 10, 15, 30 years to become - get a good spot in bar.

SIMON: Nevada's workforce has lost more income than any other state. Unemployment rates there have been some of the highest in the country. One piece of legislation gives Nevada workers some hope. It's called the Right to Return bill and would require employers to offer laid-off workers their same jobs or a position similar to what they were doing before the pandemic struck. But that bill hasn't been scheduled for a vote. Meanwhile, Jose Lopez says he's ready to get behind the bar again as soon as possible and see his customers.

LOPEZ: I got vaccinated. I don't have a problem with a mask anymore. I think it's - we've been through this for a year. People know how to deal with this. I would go to work tomorrow if I had to. I hope to be back in Main Street because that's where I belong.

SIMON: Jose Lopez of Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.