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Documentary reveals toll of job losses on and off the Las Vegas Strip: "I cry and pray a whole lot"

Losing Las Vegas
CBS Report - Losing Las Vegas 26:36

REVERB is a documentary series from CBS Reports. Watch the latest episode, "Losing Las Vegas," in the video player above. 

When the pandemic arrived, the economic shutdown hit Las Vegas harder than any other major city in America — and the impact rippled far beyond the famous Strip. Economist Jeremy Aguero described the local job losses as staggering, with the highest unemployment rates ever reported by a state since 1976, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking this data. 

"During the Great Recession, we lost about 180,000 jobs over three years. [During the pandemic], we lost over 225,000 jobs in three months," Aguero told CBS News. 

Las Vegas hotels and casinos reopened their doors in June, at reduced capacity to stay in line with social distancing safety guidelines. But tourism remains down, shows closed, conventions were canceled, and many jobs in the community have not come back. 

"People that never struggled before are now struggling. You don't expect to see Mercedes and BMWs in food distribution lines," said Stacey Lockhart, executive director of Hopelink, a nonprofit that provides emergency housing assistance to families and seniors in the Las Vegas area. "This is going to go clear into next year, and though a lot of people are back to work, there's a whole part of the community that doesn't have a job to go back to." 

The new CBS Reports documentary, "Reverb | Losing Las Vegas," tells some of their stories. [Watch the video in the player above.]

Angela Pepe – Bakery owner

Angela Pepe's small business, Curly Top Bakery, lost customers during the pandemic shutdown in Las Vegas. CBS News

After years of baking cookies for friends and her community, Angela Pepe fulfilled a dream and started her own cookie company, Curly Top Baker. In their first month, Angela and her staff were baking up to 20,000 cookies a week to fulfill orders primarily from Las Vegas conventions and specialty stores. 

But in mid-March, when COVID-19 hit, non-essential businesses came to a halt, including the large conventions that kept companies like Curly Top Baker running. Overnight, the cookie orders stopped coming in. 

Like many small-business owners, Angela had to adapt quickly and shift her business model. Online orders have helped keep her bakery afloat, but she told CBS News, "We've had the scary talk about selling the house and everything we've worked for." 

Her business did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, established by the CARES Act. Still, Angela negotiated rent payments with her landlord and is hoping her company will survive. While most small businesses nationwide partially or fully reopened by summer, about 58% of owners said they worried about having to permanently close, according to a July 2020 U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey.

Angela's husband, Mark, was furloughed from his hotel marketing job of 15 years, and then his position was eliminated. "It was a punch in the gut," said Angela. He's now putting his energy into marketing for the bakery business. 

Bakery owner Angela Pepe is hoping business will pick up with holiday gift orders. "There are a lot of nights that I cry and pray a whole lot," she said. CBS News

Angela's bakery remains open with her family's help, but she thinks the government could have done more to support small businesses. "I just wish that a lot of the larger companies that were able to take advantage of the grant money, would have left some for the smaller [companies]." 

Heading into the holiday season, Angela is hoping orders of gift boxes will pick up, but admits she's still under tremendous stress. 

"There are a lot of nights that I cry and pray a whole lot. It seems so unfair," she said. But she's trying to stay positive for her children. "They'll remember 2020 was crazy. We were going through all kinds of different scenarios with our finances, but we conquered." 

Tierney Allen – Las Vegas performer

Tierney Allen had a successful run as a Lady Gaga tribute artist, and continues performing in live-streams from home. CBS News

Before the pandemic, Tierney Allen, a tribute artist who performs impersonating Lady Gaga on the Las Vegas Strip, was looking forward to her most successful year yet. "I was on Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, and every local news station. I thought that 2020 was going to be even bigger. And then it just stopped." 

When the Strip closed down, Tierney found herself with no income at all. She promptly applied for unemployment, but it took 17 weeks for the first check to arrive. "Food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment benefits — all the government programs that are supposed to be a safety net saved us," shared Tierney.  

"I see every day, people losing their homes, having to leave Las Vegas. It's decimated the entertainment community," she said. Though hotels and casinos reopened in June, shows and entertainment venues did not. 

Tierney Allen in costume as Lady Gaga. CBS News

And amid the financial hardship and uncertainty, Tierney was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. She is responding well to treatment, but there's still a long road ahead with upcoming surgery followed by radiation. 

Tierney's husband, Travis, had a long-running show impersonating Elvis on the Strip. As established performers, they started a live-stream show on a makeshift stage in their home to provide a platform for fellow tribute artists and share in whatever donations trickled in. 

Some Las Vegas shows are finally starting to reopen with new safety guidelines in place, but Tierney doesn't anticipate returning to the Strip until 2021. In the meantime, her live-streaming shows have been therapeutic. "It gives me a reason to sing, and music is healing. I'm pushing myself to get ready and share my talent. It's something to live for."

Bradford Cook – Electronics technician

Bradford Cook's job as a union lead electronics technician at MGM in Las Vegas was eliminated amid the pandemic. CBS News

Bradford Cook worked for nine years as a union lead electronics technician at MGM. Furloughed back in March, he hoped to get called back after hotels and casinos reopened. Instead, he got a call in September telling him his position was being terminated.

"I just had to hold it together because I didn't want the kids to see me in a stressful situation. You have to be their strength," he said.

A divorced father of two with shared custody of his kids, he's gotten by on savings and unemployment, but fears his savings will be depleted soon. The state's eviction moratorium expired on October 15, but an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopping evictions brought on by the pandemic remains in effect through December 31.

Finding work is only one hurdle for Bradford and his family. School campuses remained closed in Las Vegas, so his children, ages 6 and 10, need adult supervision and hands-on assistance for remote learning throughout the day, making it challenging to look for new employment. 

Bradford is still hoping he'll get called back to his union position at MGM but is currently looking for work elsewhere. To afford to stay in their house, he'd likely need to find two jobs. He believes he's got enough between savings and assistance from loved ones to make it through the end of the year. 

"I guess when times are other than ideal, you find a way to make it through."

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