Worker shortages complicate Seattle-Tacoma airport’s rebound to pre-pandemic travel numbers
Max Heigh opened Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just four months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then travel stopped and business slowed, forcing him to lay off three-quarters of his newly hired staff.
“It was super tough,” said Heigh. “The business was very inconsistent. It was really difficult to run our business while this was happening. “
However, now that the number of travelers passing through Sea-Tac Airport has more than doubled in the past five months, Heigh faces a new challenge: hiring enough workers to cope with the sudden influx of customers.
“We just ran after our tails trying to keep up with everything,” Heigh said.
Travelers reported to Sea-Tac climbed1,402,545 in February 2021 to 3,807,357 in June 2021, create a radically different environment for all airport workers.
Moreover, this increase in travel comes as the country faces a historic labor shortage. Last month, Seattle-based Alaska Airline executives left their desks to help baggage handlers amid severe labor shortages, and American Airlines slashed its overall schedule by 1% to deal with shortages personnel, maintenance and other issues.
A change of pace
Sea-Tac Airport traffic in July 2021 reached nearly 70% to 80% of its passenger load before the pandemic, TSA Director of Federal Security Jeff Holmgren said.
While the international travel and cruise industries have not fully rebounded from 2020, TSA Pacific spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said domestic travel has returned faster than expected.
“Once the vaccine started to be more widely available, all of those numbers started to rise, and by April of this year, we were testing over a million people a day (nationwide), and it It only took about six weeks for that number to reach 2 million people, ”Dankers said. “So it was a very, very quick recovery.”
Nationally, the TSA said inJuly 2020, only 718,310 travelers passed the security checkpoints, compared to July 2019 when 2,742,882do. The TSA has said it wants to hire 6,000 agents at airports across the country, and so far more than 4,000 have been hired, Dankers said. Of those 4,000, Sea-Tac has hired more than 50 agents, although Holmgren has said he would like to hire more.
The starting hourly wage for TSO officers is $ 19.89, which includes a 10% salary increase as an incentive for retention, which expires on September 30.
Morale is not the issue, according to TSA director of transportation security William Santiago. “We already know that restaurant companies, all types of service industries and frontline workers – everyone has a hard time hiring people. he said. “We do our best with what we have. “
Transportation safety watchdog Shivam Chopra said when traffic started to pick up in the spring, TSA had to rethink its staffing models and how each line was staffed to give everyone has time to take their meals.
“On the pitch it’s a bit more difficult because we don’t have that many officers available,” Chopra said. “We were able to adjust to make sure our checkpoint was operating efficiently. “
Perry Cooper, director of media relations at Sea-Tac, said the The number of badged employees at the airport has increased from 25,000 before the pandemic to around 17,500 in the midst of the pandemic. There are now approximately 19,500 returning employees at the airport.
Cooper said there are some caveats that could impact those numbers. During the pandemic, some badged employees were able to work from home or moved to other airports. He said employment figures also tend to fluctuate due to seasonal workers.
Tiffany Lee, who works at the Delta Sky Club at Sea-Tac, said lounge workers have to help out at Delta counters and gates during the busiest weekends and holidays in recent months.
“Most of the employees in our department, which is the airport customer service, are trained to work at the ticket counter, work gates and also help anywhere on the upper floors,” Lee said. “There is a lot more travel during the holidays, so there are only extra hands on the deck.”
Cooper said the airport estimates that this month it will reach 86% of its passenger count in 2019.
Ask for help
As more travelers equals more customers, Poke to the Max’s Heigh said business has grown so much, so fast, that it’s hard for its staff to keep pace. He managed to bring the airport staff to 23 employees, but he said it was still not enough.
“It’s been really a back and forth, trying to figure out what we can really handle. We don’t want to overload our staff because we want them to want to work for us – they all work on the backside, ”Heigh said. “It was tough, to say the least.”
Poke to the Max offers competitive salaries and benefits to new hires, Heigh said, and he’s started handing out signing bonuses to attract more workers.
“We’re a small business, so we never really thought we would do something like this,” he said. “Before, the airport was a place where everyone wanted to work, it’s a secure environment, very stable work, full-time hours available, etc. Since the pandemic started, it has been very, very difficult to get people back to work. “
Bloomberg recently reported that the national labor shortage is expected to continue for the remainder of the year, based on a survey of economists by the National Association for Business Economics. It found that more than half of those polled expect wage costs to rise over the next three months as more companies raise wages and offer more work incentives.
“It’s all over the media right now on staff shortages and so on, but honestly I don’t think we can say it or stress it enough,” Heigh said.
TSA executives at Sea-Tac said they hold recruiting events every few weeks and offer signing bonuses and competitive salaries to hire more officers.
They offered new hires $ 500 in signing bonuses for completing paperwork on time, $ 500 in referral bonuses and a retention incentive, in addition to a 10% pay rise.
Dankers said unlike other customer-facing jobs, the TSA can’t afford to fall behind on staffing.
“I was talking to someone who told me that he was in a restaurant and that several tables were empty, that there were not many cooks in the kitchen and that there was a long wait” , said Dankers. “We don’t have that option here at Sea-Tac with TSA. We need to be able to make sure that we can keep the checkpoints open and fully staffed. “
Overall, airlines have announced they are hiring more workers nationwide to deal with the sudden increase in passenger numbers. American Airlines has announced that it will remove 3,300 flight attendants from long-term leave and hire 800 more before the end of the year, and Delta has announced that it will hire up to 5,000 workers this year, USA Today reported.
An Alaska Airlines spokesperson said the airline was operating at 80% of its pre-COVID levels and expects to hire an additional 2,000 to 3,000 people by next summer. That number includes pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents, and ground service agents, and most of those positions will be in Seattle.
Most airlines have been able to avert massive layoffs with $ 54 billion in federal funding since March 2020. Jonathan Battaglia, communications director for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said the funding allowed baggage handlers, customer service agents and door attendants to keep their jobs. through the pandemic.
“That’s the only reason people are really able to fly, because we’ve been able to keep these people employed,” Battaglia said.
Lee said many Delta employees, including herself, have taken time off during the pandemic to avoid layoffs. Thousands of employees across the country have also taken early retirement packages from Delta.
Sea-Tac received $ 176 million in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act last March, which targeted airports to maintain jobs and construction projects. The airport also received $ 192 million in stimulus funds last year and an additional $ 37 million in the second stimulus package this year.
While job postings at Sea-Tac are comparable to pre-pandemic figures, according to Heather Worthley, executive director of Port Jobs, “many job postings hire multiple people for the same position, so the actual number jobs available is greater than the number of job vacancies.
In August 2019, Sea-Tac had 223 job openings, but as of April 2020, there were only seven left. Now, 229 jobs are listed.
Despite the recent spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, the surge in travel is expected to persist at least until late summer.
“I’m just very proud of the Washington State and Seattle workforce. It’s been a time where we’ve seen a lot of resilience from the workforce, quite frankly, a willingness to continue to interact with the public, ”said Holmgren. “They kept coming back to work.”
Lee said she enjoys seeing her “regulars” pass through the Sky Club, such as those who travel on business every week.
“I think the emotions were definitely mutual among the passengers,” Lee said. “There was a feeling of just wanting to hug people and make them feel safe. We’re really just happy to see people again. “