Former Harrah’s GM Alleges Covid Violations

In a year of firsts, add the following: a former general manager at Harrah’s Southern California (l.), owned by the Rincon Band, is suing the company, claiming he was forced out for refusing to agree that the property was Covid-free.

Former Harrah’s GM Alleges Covid Violations

Not long ago, an official of the Rincon Band of Luiseno Indians, of San Diego County, California, told a local newspaper that Harrah’s Resort Southern California—and the Rincon reservation itself—were free of Covid-19.

Then Darrell Pilant, a former general manager of the resort and longtime Harrah’s executive, sued the U.S. gaming giant, claiming he was forced to resign after refusing to sign off on the resort’s reopening on May 22. Pilant says he was concerned that the casino wouldn’t be safe.

His lawsuit, described as a “whistleblower” employment law action, was filed against Harrah’s parent company, Caesars Enterprise Services LLC, a Delaware corporation headquartered in Las Vegas. Pilant sued his longtime employer rather than the Rincon Band, possibly because in order to sue the tribe, he would have had to do so through a tribal court.

In one section of his complaint, Pilant asserts that he didn’t agree to reopen the casino because he “reasonably believed, and government officials including California Governor Gavin Newsom as well as medical and scientific experts also believed, that doing so would endanger the health and safety of employees and the public, in light of the widespread and dangerous Covid-19 pandemic.”

An employee of more than two decades with the company, Pilant was transferred to the Valley Center property in 2011, where he went on to earn the Excellence in Leadership Award. In 2016, he was promoted to general manager, and last year, received the highest job rating as a general manager, being named a “Role Model.”

Pilant’s concerns appear to be backed up by a member of the casino’s food and beverage department, who told the local Valley Roadrunner newspaper that the casino didn’t maintain sufficiently rigorous safety standards.

Along the roads and highways leading to the casino resort, motorists can see signs advertising “Funner, California” as the resort’s location. According to the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, some patrons may be taking this slogan too literally. They “come in and think they’re in La La Land,” the employee said. “They forget there’s a virus around.”

According to Pilant’s lawsuit, in early May he was contacted by the Rincon tribal chairman “and told that the San Diego tribes were going to inform California Governor Gavin Newsom that they were planning to reopen all of their casinos on or after May 18, 2020.

“On May 8, 2020, the tribal leaders sent a letter to Governor Newsom and San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Greg Cox, setting forth their plan. Throughout this time frame, Mr. Pilant was repeatedly assured that the governor and the county were ‘on board’ with the reopening.”

Then Pilant saw a letter from Newsom that “strongly” advised against reopening casinos in the state. On May 18, Pilant contends, just days before the casino reopened, he forwarded the governor’s letter to casino management and expressed his health and safety concerns.

Later that evening, informed by phone that the property would open as planned, Pilant said that “in good conscience, he could not carry out the reopening.”

As the lawsuit states, “Rather than carry out the illegal and dangerous directive of his employer, Mr. Pilant had no alternative but to resign his longtime employment with Caesars.”

His suit claims wrongful termination on a variety of violations of California labor codes, as well as a written employee agreement.

“They’re making a lot of employees resign if they don’t feel comfortable coming to work,” the anonymous employee stated. “They tell them, if they can’t come in, ‘You have to resign, and you could be rehired within six months.’ When people would get sick, HR would tell them, ‘Don’t tell anyone.’”

In cases when a staffer’s infection became widely known, said the employee, other workers who had interacted with that staffer would be sent home.

The employee added that so many employees have been absent from work because of the virus, the casino held a hiring event in August to help make up the slack.

A Caesars Entertainment spokesperson for the Rincon property did not respond to phone calls and emails from local media.

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.