SEATTLE — Senior Alaska Airlines employees whose regular job is done from behind a desk are taking shifts this month slinging heavy bags on the outdoors ramp and in the hidden baggage-sorting netherworld beneath the passenger halls at Seattle-Tacoma International airport.
Facing a serious shortage of labor, Alaska called Friday for managers and back-office personnel to volunteer to help out over the holiday weekend and through August.
“There are gaps in some frontline areas, which are putting strains on the operation,” read one memo from Brooke Vatheuer, Alaska’s vice president of strategic performance at its Seattle hub. “The expectation is for management employees to sign up for five full shifts.”
On Friday, ahead of the July 4 holiday, Alaska’s senior vice president responsible for the carrier’s employees, Andy Schneider, hoisted bags off the conveyor belts beneath the north satellite terminal on the 6:30 a.m. shift and stacked them on carts as high as she could.
“I’m about 5 foot 4 and not very beefy,” she said, adding that it got harder as the rows of bags on the cart grew higher. “By the third row, I was struggling. But it was fun.”
Each management volunteer had to sign up for computer-based training that would take four to five hours, followed by on-the-job training during the first shift.
Those who do five shifts will qualify for passes to book free flights at any time.
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Heavy work, low pay
Baggage handlers have to do constant heavy lifting, much of it done outdoors in all kinds of weather.
Sunae Park, president of Alaska’s baggage handling subsidiary McGee Air Services, said her unit has nearly 2,100 employees around the Alaska Airlines network, with 725 of those front-line workers at Sea-Tac Airport.
She concedes there’s high turnover among the workforce.
“It’s a physically demanding job. It works for some and not for others,” Park said. “Some don’t understand the nature of the job until they get here and do it.”
The current labor scarcity is in part due to the difficulty of ramping up airport operations again as domestic air travel recovers quickly following the lengthy, pandemic-driven downturn.
At the same time, other businesses, from Amazon to retail to restaurants, are competing to hire people as well, especially at the minimum wage end of the labor market.
Park noted that “Amazon increased wage rates and offered signing and retention bonuses.”
Scrambling to hire more than 100 workers to fill the gaps, and ideally even more to allow for attrition, McGee followed suit and temporarily raised wages with incentive bonuses.
McGee is now paying new hires the equivalent of $20.42 per hour: $16.47 base pay, with an additional $2 per hour temporary bonus plus another $150 per two-week pay period for those who work the full 80 hours — the latter bonus designed to encourage reliability.
Park said the extra $2 per hour will likely continue through year-end, but is still temporary. “We need to get past Labor Day to assess the true market,” she said.
McGee started recruiting in the fall and kicked up a gear in the spring, specifically targeting graduating high school seniors and college students for summer seasonal work. Alaska even sent recruiters to hand out flyers at high school graduations, she said.
Nevertheless, “we are still less than where we’d like to be,” she said.
Though Vatheuer’s memo said there was a good initial response to the request for volunteers, one manager, who asked not to be identified to keep his job, said he and many of his peers are not eager to fill the gaps.
On the management sign-up sheet that’s visible on the internet, as of late Wednesday the shift starting at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday still had nine out of 10 volunteer slots unfilled.
A troubled labor history
The manager who expressed reluctance to volunteer blamed Alaska’s leadership for keeping pay for the baggage handlers low at the cost of stability.
In 2005, Alaska management ousted its unionized in-house baggage handlers, represented by the International Association of Machinists, and outsourced the operation to lower-paying, nonunion contractor Menzies.
Then in 2017, with the city of SeaTac minimum wage ordinance raising pay rates effective 2015, Alaska did a deal with the Machinists to bring back the union and formed the McGee subsidiary — with a contract pay scale starting lower than the minimum wage.
At the request of some labor unions, SeaTac’s minimum wage ordinance had specifically exempted employees working under a union contract.
Base pay at McGee remains for now three cents per hour lower than the current minimum wage at the airport of $16.57/hour.
So without the current incentives, someone starting at McDonald’s inside the airport terminal will have higher base pay than a new baggage handler.
Long term, that’s clearly a real hiring problem. Yet thanks to steeply rising prices, McGee’s base pay rate is at last about to ratchet up just above that minimum wage line.
At the end of this month, an annual cost of living adjustment in the IAM contract is set to hike the base pay rate for new hires by about 20 cents, finally bringing it above the minimum wage at the airport.
Dave Supplee, president of IAM District 142 that represents the front-line McGee workers at Sea-Tac, said the union and management are currently working out the precise raise, which will be determined by the June consumer price index.
Supplee praised McGee, saying the IAM has no problem with management helping out on the front line because all his members are fully employed.
He said that at the height of the COVID-19 downturn, McGee kept his members in jobs by finding other work for them, including driving airport buses, doing security or cleaning offices.
It certainly helped that McGee received $45 million in Payroll Support Program funds on condition that it retain the workforce.
In last week’s heat wave, McGee made efforts to keep its people safe with water breaks and reduced schedules. It paid double for those who worked the holiday weekend.
That, along with the management volunteers, kept Alaska’s flight schedule going close to smoothly. Around the U.S. other airlines, including Southwest and American, have suffered a rash of delays as they’ve struggled to ramp up their operations to meet the surge in demand for air travel.
Alexa Rudin, Alaska’s managing director of communications, volunteered to work the baggage operation on Sunday, July 4.
With her slinging bags, full-time ramp workers were freed to do more technical jobs such as driving the tugs that tow the baggage carts.
Operations over the weekend were reasonably smooth, she said. “Things went as expected.”
Park said McGee will continue to push its recruiting efforts to keep the airline schedule on track.
“We have a solid plan to get us to the beginning of August,” Park said. “We’ll continue to evaluate our staffing.”