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.
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