In year of tests, this hotel worker found community – and her voice
For hotel service worker Mariza Rocha, the pandemic left her without work and struggling with loneliness. Her union helped her see the power of community support in times of crisis. This is Episode 4 of our podcast “Stronger.”
When Mariza Rocha lost her job as a utility porter at The STRAT Hotel here in March 2020, she turned to her union.
The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, part of the largest in Nevada, helped her get unemployment benefits and food assistance. In July, when Ms. Rocha was diagnosed with COVID-19 after going back to work, it fought to get compensation for workers like her.
And in the months that followed, Ms. Rocha became more active with the organization, volunteering regularly and even participating in political campaigning for the first time. The work helped her cope with her uncertain income – and created a sense of community during an incredibly difficult year.
Now Ms. Rocha is convinced she would never have survived the past year if it weren’t for the organization’s support. “It’s not that I put too much cream on the tacos about the union,” she says, “but … they were there for me all the time.”
In this episode of our podcast “Stronger,” we look at how a strong support network – no matter what form it takes – can make a difference during times of crisis.
Mariza Rocha: I think like two weeks or one week before they closed, they started saying that they were going to lay off some people and some people were going to stay working. So everybody was in shock.
Jessica Mendoza: This is Mariza Rocha.
Rocha: I like to be called Rocha.
[Ambient from The STRAT Casino and Hotel]
Mendoza: She’s a utility porter at The STRAT Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Rocha: My duties are shampoo carpet, waxing the floors, stuff like that.
Samantha Laine Perfas: Rocha is 40 years old. And she’s worked at the STRAT for seven years. During that time, she built a life for herself: putting in her hours, volunteering with her union, buying a home.
Mendoza: And then on March 18, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic did something no one expected: It forced Las Vegas casinos to close their doors for the first time in almost anyone’s memory. The STRAT was no exception.
Rocha: I was in the hallways inside and they were shutting like, the power one by one. And you can see it [in] the hallway. It [feels] really sad when you see that. It was like getting dark, dark, dark, dark, dark.
[Sounds of lights shutting off, boom, boom, boom]
And it was something that I never imagined was going to happen.
Laine Perfas: In January 2020, more than 81,000 people worked in the hotels and casinos along the Strip. When those places shut down, the whole state was affected. By April that year, unemployment in Nevada was at 28% – the worst of any state in the U.S.
Mendoza: Of course, a lot has changed since then. Las Vegas is back in business. Tourists are in; mask restrictions are out. And some casino companies are hiring in the hundreds.
Laine Perfas: But recovery isn’t happening at the same pace for everyone. Many workers like Rocha are still getting back on their feet – financially and personally.
Mendoza: So we asked her: How did she get through the past year? Where is she finding support, comfort, community? And what does her experience tell us about how society can do better?
Laine Perfas: I’m Samantha Laine Perfas.
Mendoza: And I’m Jessica Mendoza.
Laine Perfas: We’re reporters with The Christian Science Monitor. This is “Stronger.”
Mendoza: We hear from six women about what they’ve lost to this pandemic – and how they’re winning it back.
Laine Perfas: Today’s episode: The Service Worker.
Mendoza: One thing we heard from almost everyone we talked to in this series: They love living in Las Vegas.
Laine Perfas: Rocha, for example. She’s bounced around a lot –
Rocha: I was in Texas. I lived in Houston for a year. I lived for six months in McAllen. And before that I lived in California.
Mendoza: – though she’s originally from Durango, Mexico.
Rocha: And the weather from Durango is exactly the same as it is in Las Vegas. So I feel at home. I love Vegas.
Laine Perfas: It’s more than just the weather, though. Rocha moved around a lot because she was constantly looking for work that could support her family. For a while, her wife and stepson were in Mexico. And she wanted to make enough to get them here to the States.
Mendoza: The jobs she picked up were all over the place: aircraft cleaner, cosmetologist. At one point she was working at Subway, the fast food restaurant. Then she started hearing about casino work.
Rocha: Some people told me, like, if you work for a casino, they pay really good. And they’re union.
Laine Perfas: In 2006, Rocha joined the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226. It’s part of the biggest union in Nevada, with over 60,000 members. And although it took a few years for her to take full advantage of it, being with the union eventually became a game-changer for her.
Mendoza: Rocha used her membership to sign up for certification classes at the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas. The school is a nonprofit affiliated with the union. It provides hospitality, vocational, and even language training for workers like her.
Rocha: When you are union, you get free classes. They train me there, they give me a certificate, they help me to fill out applications for different casinos.
Laine Perfas: Rocha trained as a GRA, or guest room attendant. That’s the person who cleans rooms and bathrooms, restocks fridges, and responds to requests or complaints from guests.
Rocha: You would have to be a GRA to understand what I’m talking about, but that’s a really hard job. But there at the school, they help a lot.
Mendoza: Students would be told:
Rocha: “Make a bed!” And then you make a bed [and] they time you. They start making you fast, so when you are on the floor, like working for a casino, you don’t get behind.
Laine Perfas: Rocha landed her first job at The STRAT in 2014, as a GRA. She quickly realized it wasn’t for her.
Rocha: Girls, I cried sometimes because it was tough. It was tough.
Mendoza: So she went back to the Academy, and she got a new certification: As a utility porter. Which honestly, doesn’t sound that much easier.
Rocha: In the morning, you start fixing your cart, getting everything to start. And then they give you assignments, like you gotta vacuum the hallways.
[Sounds of vacuums and cleaning]
Sometimes they call you for biohazard.
Laine Perfas: What does she mean by “biohazard”?
Mendoza: I think like, people throwing up. Among other things.
Laine Perfas: Gross.
Rocha: That’s the hardest part of utility. If you don’t have the stomach for it, it’s not really your position to apply for. [Chuckles]
Mendoza: But Rocha liked the work. For one thing, it gave her a chance to support her coworkers who were GRAs. That was important to her.
Rocha: Being a utility, you are able to help the GRAs. [Chuckles] I work a little bit harder to – to help them out.
Laine Perfas: And because she had union support, Rocha also felt like it was a stable job. Technically she was considered part-time, but she regularly worked a full week.
Rocha: Usually when you start in a casino they give you some hours, ‘cause you’re on call. But I was very lucky because I had my 40 hours since I started, even being a part-timer. I even sometimes do like OT, overtime.
Laine Perfas: Do you mind us asking about how much you got paid? Was it hourly, was it salary like, did you get benefits with the job?
Rocha: So we have insurance through the union. We have paid vacation. Depending [on] what contract we have, they give us a raise every year. And my pay was – at that time it was $20.51.
Mendoza: That’s $20.51 an hour, which at 40 hours a week came to about $41,000 a year.
Laine Perfas: Which isn’t a ton, but the average salary for janitorial staff in Vegas is about $15 an hour.
Mendoza: By the time she was at The STRAT, her family had moved to the U.S. from Mexico. And it was a union program that helped get them a house – the same house Rocha lives in today.
Laine Perfas: Those were pretty good years for Rocha. She and her wife were doing well.
Rocha: I really had a really good marriage. When I was married.
Mendoza: She had her stepson –
Rocha: His name is Jose Armando Leon –
Mendoza: – and they were raising him to be empathetic as well as independent.
Laine Perfas: Like the time all three of them worked at a local pizzeria together.
Rocha: It was a small business. We were answering phones or taking orders – so it was server, cashier, everything. I told him when he’s ready, he can have his own business and know how to treat the employees.
Mendoza: The gig didn’t last long, because Rocha was already working at The STRAT at the time. And it was a lot, working two jobs. But getting that message across to her son was important to Rocha.
Laine Perfas: So was education – for the whole family. Rocha used to work with Jose Armando on his homework –
Rocha: And learning with him, I was able to get my high school diploma. I went to get the test and I passed and I was like, Wow. I think it’s because of him.
Laine Perfas: Jose Armando is 18 now. He’s graduated from high school. And Rocha couldn’t be prouder.
Mendoza: What does he want to be?
Rocha: He wants to be a rapper.
Mendoza: I mean, is he a good rapper? Have you heard any of his music at all?
Rocha: Yeah, I hear it, I like it. I think he’s going to make it. He’s a very hard worker. He likes to dream a lot and he’s very passionate. He’s a good kid, I think, raised by two moms. We make a good kid.
Mendoza: After the casinos closed in the spring of 2020, Rocha and her family relied on $600 a week in unemployment through the CARES Act, along with the various COVID-19 stimulus checks that Congress made available. At first, the family tried to enjoy the break.
Rocha: The first month it was like, OK. We – we thought it was going to be only a little bit. I even have pictures of us playing game boards.
Laine Perfas: But soon the novelty started to wear thin. Rocha never had to rely on unemployment benefits before –
Rocha: Never in my life. And I don’t like to stay home. I’d rather work than get unemployment.
Laine Perfas: And as the weeks turned into months, money started to get tight.
Rocha: It started getting scary because even with the unemployment, [we weren’t] getting the regular pay that we used to. And we had more bills, not only the house.
Mendoza: What might have been the worst part, though, was that as all this was happening, Rocha’s marriage ended.
Rocha: I got divorced during the pandemic. And it’s still hard.
Laine Perfas: Rocha (understandably) didn’t want to talk very much about what happened – at least, not until we met up with her in person. But the divorce meant that her wife and stepson moved out. And Rocha lost her support system at home.
Mendoza: Before all this, the union was already a big part of Rocha’s life. But as the hits kept coming, Rocha turned to the organization even more.
Laine Perfas: Some of it was because they helped with resources. The union regularly connected members with state and federal sources of funding.
Rocha: We have a text that I would receive from them. They keep us informed.
Mendoza: They also work with the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas to provide food assistance through a program called Helping Hand.
Rocha: They had the food bank. And for some people that [didn’t] have a way to get there, they do deliveries. They’re very – they’re very good at this.
Laine Perfas: And then in July of 2020, after more than three months without work, Rocha finally got a call from The STRAT telling her she could come back in.
Rocha: I was excited because we want everything to go back to normal.
I only [worked] three days and then that’s when I got sick. So I called the housekeeping department and [told] them, “Hey, I’m feeling this. I just want to let you know before I go.” And they [said], “Well stay home and HR will contact you.” And they never did.
Laine Perfas: Did The STRAT offer paid time off or any support while you were unable to work?
Rocha: No, not at that time.
Mendoza: We did reach out to The STRAT. We asked about its policies around supporting workers throughout the pandemic. They declined to comment.
Rocha: Now we have a law here in Nevada. It’s SB4.
[News clips montage]
KTNV: “...Senate Bill 4 passed during the special session and offers protection for businesses and thousands of hospitality workers…”
KTNV: “It was inspired by a man who worked on the Las Vegas Strip as a Caesars entertainment employee. He lost his life earlier this year…”
8 News NOW: “But critics claim it does not go far enough...”
Laine Perfas: Senate Bill 4 requires Nevada employers to provide 10 work days’ worth of paid leave for workers who test positive for COVID-19.
Mendoza: It’s named after Adolfo Fernandez, a utility porter who died from COVID-19.
The bill excludes health care and public school workers, and it removes liability from employers if they follow the safety guidelines. Which led some activists to say the bill didn’t go far enough.
Laine Perfas: Still, the union fought heavily for the bill because of the protection it would provide its members, both in terms of financial security and their health.
Mendoza: The bill didn’t become law until August – too late really, to help Rocha. But that whole experience made her feel that her values and priorities really aligned with the union’s.
Rocha: Now it’s like I feel more safe. And this is about honesty, you know. Not about, “Oh, I’m going to get my – my day of pay.” It’s about honesty and caring about others.
Laine Perfas: To be clear, we’re not here to judge whether unions are good or bad. It’s just to say for someone like Rocha, it was life changing to have an organization like the Culinary Workers Union supporting her – even before the pandemic.
Mendoza: And after everything she went through? Well, it was through the union that she found purpose, community, and a lifeline.
Rocha: For real, it’s not that I put too much cream on the tacos about the union, but if it wasn’t for them, I would feel alone. You know, they were there for me all the time.
Laine Perfas: Like the other women in this series, Rocha’s year was beyond rough. But throughout our conversations with her, she was always ready with a thoughtful comment, or a dry joke, or a smile. So we were excited to meet her in person.
Mendoza: After the break: We visit Rocha (and her dog!), and see how she’s doing.
Molly Jackson: Hi everyone! I’m Molly Jackson, one of the Monitor’s international editors. This has been a year when we appreciate the people who can keep us going – family, friends, coworkers – more than ever. Especially for working women. When you feel this close to dropping one of the way-too-many things you’re juggling, it helps to hear you’re not alone. These are the stories of “Stronger.” And if you’re enjoying them, I hope you’ll support more work like this by subscribing to The Christian Science Monitor. Just visit csmonitor.com/subscribe and join our community. Again, that’s csmonitor.com/subscribe. And thanks for listening.
[Ambient sound of Rocha at the food bank pop-up]
Food bank volunteer: [Laughter] Go ahead and move up, please. Thank you.
Laine Perfas: We went to see Rocha in Las Vegas in late April of this year. By then she was more or less back at work. But her hours weren’t regular yet, so she was still getting food assistance from the union.
Volunteer: Last name?
Volunteer: And your phone number?
Rocha: It’s uh…
Mendoza: We’re not sharing her number. But we will share that there was a volunteer booth that was playing very loud party music.
[Ambient of music at the food pantry pop-up]
Mendoza: They had a box of Krispy Kremes open on their table. And Sam got this close to snatching a couple for her greedy self.
Laine Perfas: Not true! I just thought about it, for like a second.
Mendoza: If you say so.
Laine Perfas: I did have us peek into Rocha’s food box though, to see what she got that day.
Mendoza: And she did warn you, Sam, there wouldn’t be any candy in the box. (Clearly Sam has a sweet tooth!)
Laine Perfas: Can you tell us what’s in the box?
Rocha: Zucchini, I guess it is?
Laine Perfas: Yeah.
Rocha: Carrots, onions, apples. There’s uh…
Mendoza: Looks like potatoes in there.
Laine Perfas: And then there’s like grains and mac and cheese.
Mendoza: Each box had just about enough for a family of four for a week. Remember at the start of this episode we said that recovery wasn’t happening at the same speed for everyone? Throughout the pandemic, something like 1,800 union members a day were going to Helping Hand pop-ups to pick up food for their families.
Laine Perfas: And it was easy to believe those numbers, judging by the cars we saw lined up that day. The union said that as of June, the program had supplied 350,000 packages of food to laid off and furloughed hospitality workers.
Mendoza: For these folks – people like Rocha – not having to spend on food meant they could use their unemployment funds to pay their mortgage, their bills, and other expenses.
Laine Perfas: She did say though, that it doesn’t have everything. She usually goes to the grocery store for dairy, other perishables, stuff like that. Oh, and also tortillas, an essential item!
[Ambient of Rocha at the food bank pop-up]
Rocha: So that’s what we get. And they’ll allow us to come like, once a week. And it’s something less that you have to buy from the store. Like when we get this, what we do is chicken soup with vegetables, so that way we use this. And it really – really helps.
Laine Perfas: That’s great.
Mendoza: That same day, we sat down with Rocha at her home just a few miles from the park where the food bank was set up.
Laine Perfas: We showed up bright and early, so we could catch her before work.
Rocha: I can bring you to the backyard if you want to see that. I don’t have it really neat, but –
Mendoza: That’s OK.
[Sound of door being unlocked]
Rocha: I have a dog, but he doesn’t bite. He’s a little one.
Mendoza: Her dog’s name is Guerro, and he was really cute! He’s a Maltese-poodle mix with a Pomeranian grandpa. And he had his own doggy house in her living room.
Laine Perfas: Oh. Hello!
Rocha: Oh, he never barks.
Laine Perfas: Really?
Rocha: Guerrito! No!
Laine Perfas: Your fierce guard dog.
Mendoza: We got comfortable in her backyard, which has a stone patio table and benches. Rocha was in her STRAT uniform; she’d gotten a call to come into work later that day. Recently, the STRAT has been calling her in for shifts more regularly.
Rocha: Last week was the only time that I [worked] five days. So today is my fifth day this week.
Laine Perfas: Wow. Does it feel good?
Laine Perfas: Yeah?
Rocha: Yeah. I got my first check from them, and it was refreshing, you know. Coming back, it made me feel nice and happy inside.
Laine Perfas: It was great to hear her say that. What with the layoff, and the divorce, and getting sick, it seemed like Rocha deserved at least one good break.
Mendoza: Thankfully, she’s had more than one. In the spring, her mom and nephew moved in with her. Along with slowly getting more hours at work, it’s softened some of the pain of her marriage ending.
Rocha: The split wasn’t about no love, it was more about, “My goals are not your goals.” But we still have a nice [relationship]. We get along.
Laine Perfas: Rocha has stayed connected with her stepson, too. He was really understanding of what his parents went through.
Rocha: At the end, we talked and he only asked, Hey are you guys OK? Are you sure? So it was, he was the psychologist of us.
Mendoza: But the union is still a constant presence – and not just as a source of material support. The union has helped Rocha find purpose. Ahead of the 2020 election, Rocha spent some time out of state, campaigning for various Democratic candidates. That was the first time she’d ever done any kind of political work. And she really valued the sense of empowerment that came with it.
Rocha: I find out that there’s different ways to grow as a person.
Mendoza: And lately she’s been putting in volunteer time as a shop steward, which is essentially a union representative.
Laine Perfas: The work involves everything from answering members’ questions about contracts to acting as a witness when a member is called in by their employer. But for Rocha, ultimately, it’s about helping other members be aware of their rights as workers – and making sure those rights are respected and protected.
Rocha: Knowing your rights is – is amazing because you don’t have to get mad. You are telling them with knowledge. And that’s how we fight. That’s how we fight. It’s rewarding.
Mendoza: Of all the ways she was helped by the union, Rocha said the best thing was –
Rocha: Not feeling alone. If you need food, they’re there. If you need to get a house, they’re there. If you need an education they’re there. If you need a lawyer, they’re there. Health insurance. That’s something amazing, you know.
Laine Perfas: Would you say the union in some ways feels like a family or a community?
Rocha: Yes, it is, and then like in other families, they have issues, you know. Mentally, I think it’s always feeling secure that even if right now is bad, if we keep united, we always going to win. We always, even as a country as, you know, how the world we get connected through the pandemic and and we’re making it we’re making it work.
Like I said before, I don’t want it to be normal. I want it to be better than before.
Mendoza: Sam, something you and I talked about a lot while producing this series is how inspiring it is to be around women who don’t let bad breaks keep them down. But I think what I really appreciated about Rocha’s story is that it shows how important it is to also have structures for support – a community that’s there for you to lean on, whether that’s family, friends, coworkers, or something a little more organized. That’s something a lot of us take for granted. And so, think whatever you like about unions. But to me, the take away is that Rocha feels like that’s the kind of support she’s getting – it’s her community.
Laine Perfas: I totally agree. And for Rocha, being involved in the union has also made her realize that she has a voice that she can use. It’s empowering, not just in her own life, but also in advocating for others, too. Before we left, she mentioned that she wants to invest more time in advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ community. She especially wants to work with young people, who might not have a support system yet. In many ways the union showed her how strong her voice can be – and it’s helped her step into her own sense of power and agency.
Laine Perfas: Do you feel like this past year has changed you?
Rocha: Yes, I think it made me more confident and maybe because being far away from people, you discover sometimes different qualities that you have that you didn’t know that you have. That [makes] me more like, I’m OK with myself, I’m a strong woman.
Mendoza: Thanks for listening! Next time on “Stronger”: we hear from Leslie Stevenson, a social studies teacher in the Clark County school district.
Laine Perfas: Leslie has been feeling the burnout from teaching for years now. But the pandemic really made her question: should she continue to teach at all?
Leslie Stevenson: My doctor even said, “You need to find another job. This is ridiculous.” She sees a lot of teachers. And it shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.
Laine Perfas: We hope you’ll join us. And if you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us! You can find all our episodes by searching for “Stronger” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Or visit csmonitor.com/stronger.
Mendoza: This episode was reported and produced by me, Jessica Mendoza.
Laine Perfas: And me, Samantha Laine Perfas.
Mendoza: Edited by Clay Collins and Trudy Palmer. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Additional audio elements by KNTV Channel 13 Las Vegas and 8 News NOW. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.
Rocha: You like roller coasters?
Laine Perfas: Yes. We were actually talking about them.
Rocha: Yeah. The one that I will recommend is the one that – I don’t remember what is the name. But it’s the one in the middle. When you go there and you finish the ride, you’ll say, “ROCHA!”
Laine Perfas: “How could she do that to us!”
Rocha: Yeah, it’s a really good ride. That’s the best one. Your legs end up like Bambi when he was –
Laine Perfas: Just shaking and quivering.
Rocha: Yes. Yeah. Every time people come from out of town I’ll take them. You know, so, it was uh –
Mendoza: You’re very brave.
Laine Perfas: I know! Yeah. I feel like I’m learning this whole new side of you, too.
Mendoza: Rocha: Daredevil.
Laine Perfas: Rocha the Daredevil. Exactly. [Laughter]