Friday, April 4, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The owners of the embattled Tropicana hotel have placed a bounty on bedbugs, offering housekeepers $25 a pop for each one brought in alive.
The offer was posted in the hotel’s housekeeping offices, raising eyebrows among workers wondering whether they should pull out magnifying glasses while changing sheets.
“Don’t forget to check for bedbugs!” one flier exclaims in English and Spanish. “Check every room — every day.” The posting features enlarged images of the minuscule bloodsucking menaces.
The campaign to corral bedbugs for cash has provided an opening for the Culinary Union — which is in a pitched contract dispute with Tropicana ownership — to have some fun at the hotel’s expense.
Parent company Columbia Sussex had its gaming license revoked by New Jersey gaming regulators last year, and part of the evidence before that state’s casino control commission was customer complaints, including claims of bedbug-infested rooms. The company is also on the verge of bankruptcy.
“This is another historic first in labor relations on the Strip,” said Chris Bohner, Culinary Union research director. “We’ve never been enlisted in a bounty program before.”
With tongue in cheek, the union this week fired off a letter to Tropicana’s labor lawyer seeking clarification on the bedbug campaign.
“It is clear to me that more must be done to make this program work,” Norbert Kubiak of the Culinary wrote to the Tropicana’s lawyer. “Many people are not exactly sure what a bedbug looks like — how big it is, what color, how many legs, etc.”
Kubiak has probably never written such a letter until now.
He proceeded with some questions:
How does a person catch a bedbug without smashing it?
If they are to capture the bedbugs live, what containers should be used?
How are they to detain the bugs until managers or security arrive?
The union’s conclusion: Housekeepers need training.
The Sun’s inquiries to Tropicana parent company Columbia Sussex drew a stiff rebuke, including the implied threat of a lawsuit.
“There isn’t a problem. Period,” spokesman Hud Englehart said in a statement.
The incentive program is part of what the Tropicana calls its “Five Star Awards” program, he said, and is intended simply to keep housekeepers on the lookout for potential problems.
“No hotel is immune from (bedbugs) and every hotel takes precautions to ensure that incidents are detected so that infestations are prevented,” Englehart said. “We are no different.”
Indeed, bedbugs are “travelers,” and their presence in a place is the result of being brought there — usually in luggage or on clothing.
He said the company was puzzled by the union’s request for training, given that the Tropicana’s exterminator, Ecolab Pest Elimination, has provided it in the past and will continue to do so. The Culinary disputes that claim, saying its housekeepers have not been involved in bedbug detection at the Tropicana or elsewhere on the Strip.
Despite the incentive program, no live bedbugs have been brought in for cash redemption, Englehart noted. (Nor, apparently, has anyone brought in bedbugs from outside sources to see whether they could game the system.)
Gregg Wears, supervisor for the Las Vegas Strip office of the Southern Nevada Health District, said the Tropicana gets an average number of bedbug complaints, but wouldn’t elaborate. The health agency receives two or three such complaints districtwide a week, and complaints are more frequent in residential properties, he said.
All but eradicated by DDT after World War II, bedbugs began to surface again in the late 1990s and have continued to thrive at alarming rates ever since, said Richard Cooper, a New Jersey-based entomologist and pest control magnate who co-wrote the “Bed Bug Handbook,” published in January.
Bedbugs are commonly found across the spectrum of hotels, from fleabag to five-star, Cooper said. Just last month, he noted, they were discovered in Fox News’ Midtown Manhattan newsroom. Cooper said he encountered the pests a half-dozen times on business trips in the past year, including a visit to Las Vegas. (He declined to name the hotel.)
If there are bedbugs at the Trop, the housekeepers may have a hard time finding them because the six-legged, reddish-brown insects hide by day and feast on blood at night. They administer an anesthetic to mask the bite and an anticoagulant to ensure a steady drink, or “blood meal.” Bedbugs can drink three times their weight in a single meal. And in large infestations, they emit a sweet, musty odor.
As The New York Times put it in 2005: “When engorged with blood, they grow slightly plumper than the O on this page, although the nymphs, which appear almost translucent before their first meal, are not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.”
Cooper applauded the Tropicana for its incentive program, but said proper training is critical to deal with bedbugs.
“Up until this point most hotels would never take a step that would imply they’re battling with bedbugs,” he said. “The sooner the public recognizes that this is an issue, it’s here and it’s not going away, the better.”
He added: “It’s a bold move for them to make. A lot of people might look at this and say they have a problem — but the reality is so does everybody else.”