Many Alaska businesses are facing an unprecedented shortage of workers as customers return and the pandemic ebbs, even as many Alaskans remain out of work. Thousands of jobs are available in the state, but employers say they’re having trouble filling them.
That’s prompted some, like Anchorage’s Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Grill, to dangle higher wages and unique bonuses, or to limit their operations until they can fully restaff.
Stephanie Johnson, general manager at the Bear Tooth, said people are applying, but many aren’t following through. Hiring has been slow, she said.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the 20 years I’ve worked here,” she said. “The hardest part is getting people in the door.”
The Bear Tooth needs to add about 50 people to fully reopen. The movie theater remains closed to public showings. And the restaurant is opening later and closing earlier than it did before the pandemic.
To attract workers, the venue is offering an extra $2 an hour for kitchen staff and other back-of-house workers.
The incentive will be paid retroactively to employees who remain through Sept. 15. It will bring their pay closer to waiters and bartenders who take home a larger share of tips, she said.
It means experienced cooks can start at $16 an hour with the retroactive perk.
“The restaurant industry has been needing to address some of these issue for a long time, and there’s no doubt in my mind the pandemic is forcing that to happen faster,” she said.
The lack of available employees is causing some businesses to rethink their wages and incentives, said Paula Bradison, owner of Alaska Executive Search, a firm that matches employers with employees.
“It’s a very competitive market right now, and the employees are in the driver’s seat,” she said.
Alyeska pitches a commuter allowance, ASD offers a $500 bonus
Bradison said businesses are increasingly curious about the right wage to offer new hires. The competition is strongest in entry-level positions in fields such as hospitality, retail and office support, she said.
But even higher-paying professional sectors are offering more incentives, she said, such as the financial industry that has been busy processing federal COVID-assistance loans and mortgages.
“They’ll say if you sign this contract for work in Alaska, we’ll pay you $20,000 to pay for your moving expenses,” she said. “It’s always been there for certain specialties, like physicians, but we’re seeing it in other industries now.”
The Anchorage School District is offering a $500 bonus in hopes of hiring about 50 cafeteria workers, close to 25% of the normal workforce, said Andy Mergens, the district’s senior director of student nutrition.
The district closed schools to in-person classes last year, so it didn’t need cafeteria employees then. But as in-person classes phased back in this year, many cafeteria staff didn’t return. The district managed by shuffling workers between elementary, middle and high schools.
That’s not a long-term solution, he said. Without enough workers next fall, service will take longer. That will shorten many students’ already narrow meal time window, he said.
Pay for the cafeteria positions starts at about $14 to $18 an hour, he said. The bonus is a way to offer more now while protecting the cafeteria budget, which is funded by meal sales, he said.
The Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood needs about 80 employees, general manager Mandy Hawes said last week.
The hotel has begun offering an extra $1 an hour to seasonal hires, paid retroactively to those who stay through the summer.
Atop existing benefits, like free lift passes for employees and dependents, the hotel is also offering new deals like a $325 a month commuter allowance for workers traveling from Anchorage and a $750 referral bonus when employees find new hires.
“It’s definitely a competitive environment,” Hawes said. “We want to make sure people stay through the summer, and feel good about their employment with us.”
A mismatch in the workforce
Local businesses are also making the choice to cut back on hours or services.
Gia Dinh Pho and Vietnamese Cuisine in Midtown Anchorage reopened on-site dining this spring after it had been closed for months, said Joy Kiehn, an owner.
But it closed dine-in service again this week because it can’t find enough qualified employees for its dining room, she said. It currently offers only to-go orders after also cutting deliveries.
People are applying, she said, but they often don’t follow through with interviews.
The restaurant pays minimum wage. In Alaska, that’s $10.34 an hour. With tips, employees earn more, from $15 to $25 an hour, and sometimes much higher, she said.
The state’s AlaskaJobs database lists about 10,000 open jobs, said Lennon Weller, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Not every open job shows up on that site, he said.
But he said there’s currently a disconnect between jobs and prospective workers. More than 30,000 people have collected unemployment benefits in Alaska recent weeks, about five times the amount in May 2019 before the pandemic, Weller said.
Employers have often blamed the worker shortfall on a $300 weekly federal unemployment supplement, Bradison said. Several employers the Daily News interviewed for this story said they thought the federal supplement was a key reason behind the shortage, and the lack of follow-through in applications.
In many states, that benefit will last into early September. But with the intention of driving people back into the workforce, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has joined other Republican-led states in ending that supplement, starting this week.
Other factors are at play in keeping potential employees out of the workforce, economists say.
They include a mismatch between available jobs and people’s skills, a lack of child care services keeping some parents at home, as well as a reduction in the number of seasonal workers that have previously traveled to Alaska from other states and abroad.
Pandemic-related restrictions at U.S. embassies has slowed processing of the J-1 immigrant visas that often bring many foreign college students to Alaska for work, said Tom Tougas, owner of Major Marine Tours, offering wildlife and glacier cruises out of Seward.
He currently employs six J-1 workers from Eastern Europe, but he’d normally employ about 15, he said.
Still, he said he’s fully staffed, with 110 employees for the cruises and two hotels he operates in Seward.
He said he didn’t need to pay more to attract staff. He said he’s always offered high wages and benefits, including annual bonuses, in part because he has to keep many of his workers year-round.
“We have the advantage of being a year-round business with 30 years of business in Seward, so people know us,” he said. “And generally we have the highest wages for our industry.”
Correction: A previous version of this article implied the federal minimum wage is $9.34 an hour. It is $7.25 an hour.