COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — The evening before ilani reopened for business, some of its workers were greeted with an email from a table games coordinator.
The email, titled “Extra Time,” gave advice to staff who were returning to work May 28 after a 70-day closure related to the pandemic.
“Don’t forget to give yourself LOTS of extra time getting here tomorrow,” the email read. “Could be like opening day in 2017 when the freeway was backed up to the fairgrounds. Thanks everyone, just wanted to prepare you all.”
On opening day in 2017, freeway traffic clogged for eight miles, and close to 15,000 people visited the casino just west of La Center. Because of that, the email left some staff concerned about how physical distancing would work at a business dependent on thousands of people gathering indoors, where coronavirus is transmitted more easily.
“Zero remorse, just a reminder that huge crowds were no excuse to be late to work,” one worker said of the email.
The email, while brief, is symbolic of a larger rift that has formed between some ilani workers and casino leadership. The Columbian spoke with six current employees for this story, and one former employee, who all said they feel like upper management has not taken COVID-19 safety precautions seriously enough, contributing to the two cases its workforce has registered so far.
The six current employees interviewed for this story were granted anonymity, because they feared repercussions for violating ilani’s policy restricting media interviews to ilani President and General Manager Kara Fox-LaRose and Tom Teesdale, ilani’s vice president of marketing.
On the public record, two electronic workplace complaints were filed with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s Washington office in June. Both were resolved after an internal investigation by ilani, which is standard for electronic complaints, according to OSHA.
Fox-LaRose said she understands how the email would raise alarm. She said management was concerned about large crowds, but took comfort in the belief that the casino had proper precautions in place and would hold the doors to guests if the casino approached capacity.
“We don’t see backups on the highway and congestion as good news,” Fox-LaRose said. “We certainly did not want to add to the anxiety of our community or our team.”
The day before reopening, some employees’ workplace fears escalated at a mandatory leadership meeting.
Fox-LaRose said the intention was to go over the state of the business, teach about safety precautions and answer any questions from staff, who were distanced from each other and given masks, Fox-LaRose said.
Three workers who attended the meeting said it did not ease their concerns. They said it felt more like a pep rally for a return to work, which made them feel ignored and hurt.
Fox-LaRose said an employee, who is a musician, sang a song inspired by their employment by the Cowlitz Tribe, the casino’s owner. She said she found the song emotional, and she said it culminated with everyone singing along and applauding. She said there were tears in the room. The song was intended to end the meeting on a positive note, given the gravity of the situation, Fox-LaRose said.
The three employees present at the meeting said they felt like the song was tone-deaf.
“The response was grim,” a worker said. “Everyone was uncomfortable. It was awkward.”
When ilani reopened the following day, Clark County was still in Phase 1 of Washington’s COVID-19 recovery plan. A few days earlier, the county had its Phase 2 application shelved after a large outbreak was identified at Firestone Pacific Foods in Vancouver.
Fox-LaRose said ilani moved forward with reopening because managers felt confident in safety measures they had in place and their ability to control capacity. The data suggested Clark County was not far off from more relaxed Phase 2 restrictions; it happened eight days after ilani opened.
The Cowlitz Tribe has sovereign rights and is not required to follow the state’s reopening schedule. Casinos would have had to wait until Phase 3 to open if they were under Gov. Jay Inslee’s jurisdiction, according to a spokesperson for Inslee’s office.
Inslee said he was disappointed when many casinos on tribal land reopened in early or mid-May, days and weeks before ilani.
“I have expressed to the tribes that I would very much be more pleased if their openings were consistent with some of the business openings in our state,” Inslee said in a May 14 press conference.
Fox-LaRose said ilani has coordinated and continues to coordinate with the governor’s office and state and local health officials for guidance. She said there was no pushback to their reopening.
The casino has restrictions in line with Phase 2, such as no live entertainment and no table sizes of more than five at its restaurants and at gaming tables, she said.
Clark County still has not reached Phase 3.
A $1 million investment in safety
Fox-LaRose said the casino has remained below one-quarter of its 13,000-person capacity since reopening, although employees questioned that claim. ilani monitors capacity through technology, on-floor surveillance, parking lot capacity monitoring and data reports of floor traffic, she said.
ilani has invested $1 million in safety precautions related to the pandemic, Fox-LaRose said.
“Reopening a facility (with) the size and complexity of ilani is quite an undertaking,” Fox-LaRose said in an email June 30. “Behind the scenes for many weeks, there was a tremendous effort and investment underway in the planning, people, technology and materials we would need in order to reopen safely.”
Every guest must pass through a touch-free temperature check station. The casino has idled roughly half of its slot machines for physical distancing and added Plexiglas dividers between guests and dealers at game tables.
Restaurant tables have been reduced in number and spaced apart in accordance with Phase 2 guidelines, and sanitation stations are placed in the casino so people can wipe down slot machines or clean their hands.
Despite the investment, staff and one former staffer interviewed by The Columbian say they are concerned about workplace safety. Bradley Ulmer worked table games at the casino. He said he quit in late June because of concerns over safety.
Ulmer said he formed a list of concerns and got about 75 workers to sign the list before presenting it to management. The list includes safety ideas, such as not allowing groups to hover around tables; allowing dealers to refuse dealing to patrons who are not wearing face coverings; providing more security to enforce imposing safety standards, and imposing stricter repercussions on players who consistently flaunt the precautions (including banning a player from the casino for 24 hours).
Fox-LaRose says management had requested the list to learn more about employees’ concerns. Ulmer said it was workers’ idea to create the list, which then prompted a survey from management. He said he did not feel safe or listened to at work.
“Customer satisfaction should not be held at a priority above my safety,” Ulmer said.
In early July, a second ilani employee tested positive for COVID-19, further raising fears, employees said. Fox-LaRose said having two COVID-19 cases in a six-week span, while unfortunate, is a small number for a workforce of around 1,300 people.
Fox-LaRose said the casino is not requiring close contacts of confirmed cases to get tested; instead, it is making them isolate for 14 days. Some workers question if the number of cases is higher, because testing is not required.
“(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is not encouraging people to take a test necessarily while they’re in the incubation period,” she said. “Even if they tested negative, there may still be a risk there. So we are having people quarantine for the entire incubation period, which is 14 days. And if we do send people for tests, we are paying for it.”
Workers said they are not backed up by management for enforcing physical distancing and face-covering rules. Workers said that when guests don’t wear masks inside, they feel like there is no recourse to change the behavior. Ulmer said he was told by a manager not to “hound” customers to wear masks. He said people crowded around table games to watch the action, which made him feel unsafe.
“If we are not allowed to enforce the rules, what’s the point of having them?” Ulmer said.
“We believe that if people drive together, they should not be forced to stand apart,” Fox-LaRose said.
The casino scheduled staff members to act as enforcement for physical distancing and face coverings upon reopening, Fox-LaRose said.
She said the casino created “mask before you ask” buttons for staff to remind patrons to wear a mask when interacting with staff to assist the team.
Fox-LaRose said workers are allowed to ask guests to wear masks at any time they are uncomfortable and can refuse service. She said security can ask a guest to leave if they don’t follow the mask policy.
Fox-LaRose said the casino is hiring a team to carry out enforcement duties moving forward. Putting enforcement on service staff can create problems for staff, who want to please customers, Fox-LaRose said.
“It causes anxiety for the team,” she said.
She acknowledged that enforcement has been a challenge, especially since the casino implemented a face-covering policy before Washington. Fox-LaRose said customer behavior has improved since Washington’s mandatory public face-covering order went into effect.
There have also been issues with belligerent customers who don’t want to wear masks, according to workers. Workers said they feel frightened by customer behavior, and said there have been more altercations than normal.
An analysis of dispatch calls to ilani shows the casino had around 240 emergency dispatch calls in the month after reopening. That’s only about 50 calls short of every call ilani saw from January to its closure in mid-March. It had around 100 dispatch calls in June 2019.
“We are telling customers it’s safe when it is absolutely not,” one employee said.
Fox-LaRose said everyone is under more pressure now because of the pandemic.
Employees say employee turnover has hampered security, but Fox-LaRose said the casino has amped up security and is a very safe environment.
An evolving response
On Saturday, ilani indefinitely banned indoor smoking at its casino, citing the uncertainty of COVID-19 and drastically increasing infection rates in Clark County.
“Enforcing the wearing of masks in a smoking environment is difficult, but ultimately we are concerned about the health of our team and our guests,” Cowlitz Tribe Chairman William Iyall said in a press release announcing the change. “When we looked at the issue through the lens of protecting the health of our community during this difficult time, there really was no other choice.”
Multiple employees complained to The Columbian about allowing smoking inside as far back as a month ago. They said action should have come sooner.
Fox-LaRose said the ban is part of ilani’s evolving response to COVID-19 and safety. She said casino leadership is continuing to learn new things as health advice changes every day.
Closing down the casino again remains a possibility if community spread continues to worsen, she said.
“Nothing is off the table,” Fox-LaRose said. “Our country continues to learn on a daily basis the impacts of this pandemic, and we continue to remain open-minded and willing to make adjustments to our operation.”
One employee said she still remembers the first person she saw walk through the door on opening day: an older woman, who used a walker for navigation. She said many older, higher-risk folks visit the casino.
The worker is worried about getting infected and passing the virus along to a family member she has to care for, who is medically compromised.
“My hair is beginning to fall out in clumps,” the worker said. “I’m losing sleep, losing weight. I often cry myself to sleep due to stress.”