Airport restaurants and TSA offer bonuses for labor shortages

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A Starbucks store closed at noon at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

A workforce shortage at the Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport became so severe last month that one of its senior executives sent a message to stores and restaurants: don’t rob one another’s employees and others.

“As you know, we are going through one of the biggest recruiting challenges in the history of DFW Airport,” wrote Ken Buchanan, executive vice president of revenue and customer experience management, to dealers in a May 27 letter reviewed by CNBC. “As we prepare for a busy summer, please continue to uphold DFW Airport’s high hiring standards and avoid soliciting employees from other DFW operations (‘poaching’). “

After more than a year of lockdowns linked to the coronavirus pandemic, travelers leaving their homes on vacations have faced long security lines, hours of waiting with airlines and less. options at the airport for everything from coffee to fried chicken sandwiches due to understaffing.

Hiring bonus of $ 1,000

The Transportation Security Administration is offering hiring bonuses of $ 1,000 as part of its campaign to add 6,000 screening officers by the end of September. She has hired around 4,000 so far, a TSA spokeswoman said. Airports serving Austin, Texas, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina, have asked travelers to arrive up to three hours earlier in recent weeks due to long security lines.

Some airlines, which have received $ 54 billion in federal wage support to keep them from laying off workers, are now rushing to hire staff for reservation lines and other parts of the business. Carriers have urged employees to take temporary leaves or buy-backs during the pandemic to cut costs. American recently cut its schedule by 1% for the first half of July, citing a lack of staff.

Leisure and hospitality jobs in the United States increased by 292,000 last month, accounting for more than half of May’s employment gains, according to the Department of Labor’s monthly report. Almost two-thirds of employment gains in the sectors came from food and beverage establishments.

The national trend that has challenged managers trying to fill these types of jobs is even more acute at many airports.

Potential workers who are willing to go through a federal security check, which can take more than two weeks, and travel to the airport to flip burgers or sell magazines come at a steep price – if they can be found.

Sudden recovery

“Airports, even in normal times, have enormous difficulty in getting people to want to come to the airport for work,” said Earl Heffintrayer, senior airport analyst at Moody’s Investors Service.

Some dealers have said childcare needs or increased unemployment benefits may have deterred some potential workers from taking jobs.

The strong recovery after spending a year struggling with falling demand has created a scramble for workers.

Employers “cut a lot [of jobs last year] and all of a sudden they want to hire a lot. Many employers are trying to hire at the same time, ”said Ioana Marinescu, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the impact of stimulus checks during the pandemic. “The pool of workers is roughly constant, while the number of employers trying to hire keeps increasing.”

She said unemployment benefits make applicants more demanding about job opportunities.

Federal aid

The travel industry’s recovery has accelerated since Covid-19 vaccines were widely deployed this spring. TSA airport checks rebounded to around 80% of 2019 levels, a sharp turnaround from last year, when the volume of passengers in the United States fell to its lowest level since 1984.

Twenty billion dollars in federal assistance to U.S. airports in three national coronavirus relief programs since March 2020 is easing the blow from worker shortages, Moody’s Heffintrayer said. That includes $ 8 billion in airport subsidies announced last week by the Federal Aviation Administration – of which $ 800 million was earmarked for rent relief for airport retailers and food and beverage operators.

Airports Council International estimates that US airport revenue losses will total $ 40 billion through March 2022 due to the pandemic.

“There is definitely money left on the table,” Heffintrayer said of the effect of the shortage of workers at airports. Food and beverage concessions in terminals and retail stores contributed about 7% to the nearly $ 25 billion operating revenue of U.S. commercial airports in 2019.

In early June, 187 of 227 active concessions reopened at the Dallas airport, said DFW spokesman Bill Begley, including 83% of food and beverage locations, 82% of retail and 81% of services.

Higher bonuses and salaries

Gilbert Aranza, CEO of Star Concessions, which jointly operates or manages more than 50 food, beverage and retail businesses at DFW and Dallas Love Field, said he wanted the airport to add rules against the poaching of employees in leases. He said the idea was inspired by the NFL’s anti-tampering rules, which prohibit rival teams from wooing a player under contract with another club.

Star Concessions operates several restaurants and concessions in a new four-door chain at DFW, but said it had not been able to recruit enough staff. A senior manager said he brought food from the kitchen to customers. A cook at one of her other restaurants, who declined to give her name, said she was approached by a manager at another restaurant asking if she would join an extra $ 1 an hour, or 16 $. The Aranza restaurant corresponded to the proposed increase.

At the end of May, Star Concessions organized a job fair at a nearby airport hotel, with four of its employees. Nine candidates presented themselves. The company offers referral bonuses of $ 400 to current employees and $ 200 bonuses to employees who work 35 or more hours per week, said Mollie Standridge, vice president of Star Concessions.

Companies often look to bonuses on pay increases. Once “you raise the wages, it’s harder to bring them down,” Marinescu said. But some employers are increasing wages to attract workers.

Star Concessions has increased hourly wages for non-tip employees at its concessions to $ 14 to $ 17 an hour, from $ 12 to $ 14, Standridge said.

Cooks in high demand

OTG Management, which operates terminal restaurants in Newark, New Jersey, Houston and other major hubs, offers signing bonuses of $ 750, CEO Rick Blatstein said. Cooks are the most popular and get $ 1,000 signing bonuses, while new managers get $ 3,000 in bonuses.

The company, which like other dealerships laid off workers at the start of the pandemic, was still short by around 1,000 employees at the start of the month. That doesn’t prevent the locations from opening, but OTG is obligated to limit menu items, Blatstein said.

Career Fair for Airport Concession Workers near DFW International.

Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Star Concessions hired 75 people, who were badged by the airport; 34 showed up on day one, Standridge said.

She said each morning that she prayed that enough employees would show up to open their stores.

“I call it the endowment prayer,” she said.

A lack of workers can mean longer waits for food, which passengers often don’t have.

Customers typically take “15 minutes between butt and butt” in airport bars and up to about 22 minutes in restaurants, she said. Travelers don’t come to the airport “to eat at Maggiano’s,” in reference to the Italian-American restaurant chain, Standridge said.

The problem is not limited to DFW.

‘On the spot’

“We’re treading water,” said Les Gunderson, chief operating officer and employee for more than two decades at Montana Gift Corral, which operates 11 gift shops and four restaurants in Bozeman, MT and at the Bozeman International Airport. Yellowstone, selling everything from paints to thermos to support claw-shaped salad servers.

Gunderson said the company has started sending flyers to nearby towns, announcing bonuses of $ 2,000 for workers. There is a shortage of employees after many students left town during the pandemic.

“We are hiring more high school students than ever before,” she said.

Gunderson said she struggled to reach 160 employees but was expected to be 200. Before the coronavirus, she said she had 165.

Bozeman has been a tourist hotspot during the pandemic as travelers flocked to outdoor destinations where physical distancing was possible.

A concession stand at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport

Leslie Joseph | CNBC

The airport handled 130,942 paying passengers last month, up nearly 18% from May 2019. Bozeman airport spokesman Brian Sprenger said airport officials s ‘expected this month’s total passenger count to be up 35% to 40% from two years ago.

In Orlando, Florida, Yovannie Rodriguez, executive director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, said the airport holds job fairs to ensure concessions are open as tourists return to the popular destination after the reopening of theme parks.

“We would like there to be a rush hour, we would like to make sure that passengers have something available,” she said. “They are there to have fun and meet the expectations of passengers, we want to meet them.”



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