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September 20, 2014

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Echelon delay changes prospects for workers

Las Vegas has been construction employment hot spot; now future looks a lot less certain

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Steve Marcus

Most work on Boyd Gaming’s $4.8 billion Echelon project on the Strip has stopped. It will open about a year later than planned, Boyd says.

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Ironworker Jerry Ciciliano had been on the job for a couple of hours Friday morning when he discovered that within days — or hours — he’d be out of a job.

A friend had just passed on the news that work on Boyd Gaming’s big resort project, Echelon, was being shut down until the economy improves.

Ciciliano’s boss called the story “a bunch of bull,” but a half-hour later, his boss was back on the two-way radio saying the rumors were true. Later, Ciciliano, 59, was nursing a beer at Brando’s, the bar and video poker joint across the street from the job site.

The place was packed with ironworkers, carpenters and laborers, many waiting to collect their final paychecks and trying to make sense of the news. Some said they’d been drinking since 9 a.m., when word of the layoff began to reach the workers.

“It was a shock. It’s hard to believe they’d go that far (with the project) and then quit,” Ciciliano said.

Rumors flew about how long the shutdown would last.

Boyd Gaming announced Friday morning that the $4.8 billion resort on the Strip, which it had planned to open in 2010, would be delayed for perhaps a year. But some industry analysts think postponement could be extended, depending on when the financial climate improves.

Ciciliano is a Las Vegas native who’s been on jobs for 40 years, so he figures he’ll be all right. But he said he worries about the young people just starting out.

Even as residential construction shed thousands of jobs this year, highly paid union jobs on Strip projects had remained a bright spot for construction workers in the city — and across the country. Veteran trades workers flocked to Las Vegas as unions advertised plenty of work to go around on their job hotlines.

“It was totally unexpected. We were supposed to work tomorrow,” said Mario Aguilar, 50, who’d come to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in April.

The 800 workers who had been working at Echelon include 500 carpenters and 200 ironworkers. The loss could be more deeply felt than that, however, because the job was still revving up and was to include many more workers, topping out at about 4,000.

A few workers will continue to work at Echelon, some of them finishing construction on complex structures that can’t simply be abandoned, Boyd Gaming spokesman Rob Stillwell said.

Aguilar is not only out of a job, he’s also lost his housing.

The company had been putting him up at Circus Circus, but the deal is off now, Aguilar said.

He’ll probably pay for a few extra days while he weighs his options. A friend might get him a job at the Fontainebleau high-rise resort, or maybe he’ll go back to Los Angeles — and risk burning more gas to get to a job site.

His union, Ironworkers Local 433, couldn’t fill work orders this week, he said. Now he worries the union will have more people than it can put to work.

Unions say those concerns are unfounded, but they still worry about what the Echelon news portends.

“In our initial assessment, we think for the most part there is enough work in the pipeline that most folks will get absorbed rather quickly,” said Steve Redlinger, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council.

That’s because some large construction projects are not yet at their peak staff numbers, such as McCarran International Airport’s Terminal 3 and the Fontainebleau. MGM Mirage’s $9.2 billion CityCenter, meanwhile, employs thousands of workers a day.

But officials say they’ll still have to reassess some assumptions.

“I was getting the feeling from Boyd that they would start manning up just as CityCenter was manning down, and they would roll that workforce into the Echelon,” Sheet Metal Workers Local 88 Business Manager John Christiansen said. “Hopefully it might still work out that way.”

Christiansen said just a handful of sheet metal workers were at Echelon, but the union was expecting more work there before long.

State economist Jared McDonald said the Echelon news has prompted the Employment Department to reconsider projections for construction work in the state.

“The one thing we had to look forward to was all the construction jobs until the casinos come online,” McDonald said. “This is really going to dampen things.”

Industrywide, the state is down 13,200 construction jobs from last year, McDonald said. That’s a 9.6 percent drop for an industry that employs about 11 percent of workers in the state.

McDonald’s sentiment was echoed by union officials as well as workers.

“This kind of puts a damper on everyone’s sense of where the future is,” said Marc Furman, president of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

Sun reporter Liz Benston contributed to this story.

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