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

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.

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

Businesses are advertising for workers any way they can, including on their equipment. Here, a fuel truck in Richmond, Calif., on a recent day.


Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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A set of labor market indicators Thursday should give investors some optimism ahead of Friday’s monthly jobs report.

Payroll provider ADP said private payrolls increased by 978,000 last month, far surpassing the 650,000 rise economists polled by FactSet had predicted. Companies hired at the fastest clip since August as the service sector comes back to life; the leisure and hospitality industries represented almost half of overall hiring in May.

First-time claims for jobless benefits, meanwhile, fell to yet another pandemic low. The number of people filing for unemployment insurance fell 20,000 in the latest week, to a seasonally adjusted 385,000. Economists expected a smaller decline to 395,000. The four-week moving average for the series, which helps smooth out some of the volatility in the weekly employment indicator, also fell to a new pandemic low of 444,000. For context, that measure compares with monthly averages of 621,000 and 722,000 in April and March.  

The drop in weekly claims since April has been quick and steady. With many companies struggling to find workers, the risks of prematurely letting people go is rising, says
Ian Shepherdson
of Pantheon Macroeconomics. “The downward trend has been relentless in recent months, and a return to the pre-Covid level, in the low 200s, over the summer seems a decent bet,” he says.

Taken together, the ADP and jobless claims reports suggest investors have reason to believe hiring in May was solid. Economists are looking for the Labor Department to report a nonfarm payroll increase of 655,000, up from 266,000 a month earlier.  

There are reasons for optimism to be tempered, though. Labor shortages that led to April’s disappointing nonfarm payroll print haven’t eased. While payrolls tend to rise more quickly when jobless claims are falling fast, the relationship between firing and hiring is weaker now because of the large number of people sitting out of the labor force, Shepherdson says. 

While first-time claims are dropping sharply, continuing claims remain more stubborn. Claims for ongoing benefits rose to 3.77 million in the most recent week from 3.6 million a week earlier. Economists expected little change in the series. The separate Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which includes gig workers, self-employed individuals not eligible for normal unemployment benefits, still counts more than 6 million recipients, notes MFR’s Josh Shapiro. 

A third labor market indicator released Thursday gives more reason for cautious optimism. The Institute for Supply Management’s service-sector report for May hit a record high—the index came in at 64, up from 62.7 in April and above the expected print of 63. Hiring continued for the fifth consecutive month, but at a slower pace than in April. That’s another reminder that growth might be even stronger

The Canadian government has introduced a travel ban for passenger flights from India and Pakistan for the next 30 days due to growing concerns around the spread of COVID-19 variants, beginning at 11:30 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health, revealed that flights from India account for 20 per cent of recent air travel volumes to Canada, but more than 50 per cent of positive tests conducted at the border.

“A similarly high level of cases, compared to travel rate, have also been linked to Pakistan,” Hajdu said.

While the Canadian government is halting direct passenger flights from India and Pakistan, anyone departing those two countries but entering Canada via an indirect route after 11:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, for the next 30 days, must obtain a negative COVID-19 pre-departure test at their last point of departure.

Cargo flights will be allowed for the arrival of essential supplies like vaccines and personal protective equipment. 

“We’ve been saying for over a year, now is not the time to travel,” Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport said at the press conference on Thursday. “Border restrictions can change at any time and you can be stuck in another country.”

This comes after growing concerns around the “double mutant” COVID-19 variant B.1.617, first identified in India, and a day after Quebec identified its first case of the variant..

“This is a temporary measure while we assess the evolving situation and determine appropriate measures going forward,” Alghabra said.

The transport minister added that there are currently no direct flights from the Brazil, the country of origin of the P1 COVID-19 variant, but he indicated that the federal government “will not hesitate to ban travel from other countries if the science bares that out.”

Minister Alghabra also urged Canadians to avoid the “trap” of blaming certain groups for COVID-19.

“We’ve seen this with Asian Canadians, we must reject scapegoating any group,” he said. “This virus is not Chinese, nor is it Indian, it affects us all.”