O’Hare, Midway airports struggle to find workers – Crain’s Chicago Business

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As travelers get back in the air, an already tight labor market for service jobs that is squeezing restaurants and retailers outside the airport is putting even more pressure on employers at O’Hare and Midway.

“It’s horrible,” says Robert Kenney, manager of Nuts on Clark, at a job fair held last week at Midway Airport, which drew five people. Before the pandemic, airport job fairs would attract about 100. “We’ve got skeleton crews while we’re trying to hire,” he says of Nuts on Clark’s five shops at the city’s two airports. He’s looking to fill six positions.

Like other companies in search of service workers, airport vendors are struggling to find employees who will answer the call.

“People aren’t showing up for interviews,” says Patty Sianis, who runs Billy Goat Tavern locations at O’Hare and Midway and is looking to fill two to three jobs at each location. “Before the pandemic, you’d put an ad out and get a lot of responses. People would show up, and you could make a hire in two weeks. Now you set up 10 interviews and only one responds.”

Without enough workers, retailers are leaving sales on the table, and the travel experience is less inviting for customers whom airlines and the airports desperately want to win back. It potentially means less revenue that the airport can use to offset landing fees paid by airlines, which remain under financial strain from the pandemic.

“Our concessionaires, like many industries around the country, are facing challenges in recruiting employees to return to work,” says a spokeswoman for the Department of Aviation. “This is a phenomenon that is being experienced at most airports nationally, along with other segments of the travel and hospitality industries.”

The city says 77 percent of shops and restaurants at O’Hare have reopened. At Midway, 59 percent are back in business.

“Some restaurants have reopened. Some haven’t,” says Patrick Little, director of operations for Tortas Frontera, the Rick Bayless restaurants at O’Hare. “Staffing is part of that equation. Some of it is what concepts are most popular with customers. There are myriad reasons.”

Tortas Frontera’s three O’Hare locations, which are operated by a concessionaire, have reopened over the past three months.

“I’m sure there’s been some money left on the table,” he says. “That’s true for everyone. No one has a crystal ball about when traffic is going to pick up and when to start hiring. You have to be a few weeks ahead of it.”

Some retail operators are offering sign-on bonuses, a practice airport veterans say is unheard of. Hudson Group, which operates newsstands and bookstores, and Marshall Retail Group, which operates InMotion and Headphone Hub—are offering a $300 incentive, based on recent online job postings.

“Like many other retailers, we’re experiencing challenges in hiring store associates,” says a spokeswoman for Hudson, based in East Rutherford, N.J. She declines to comment further.

Ads showed Sodexo is offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus for a cook at the United Club at O’Hare. Outsourcing firms Worldwide Flight Services offered a $1,500 bonus for cargo ramp workers at O’Hare, and Atlantic Aviation offered a $1,500 bonus for refuelers at Midway.

The Transportation Security Administration is offering $1,000 bonuses for new security screeners.

It’s another sign of the strain being felt across vast swaths of an economy that had been idling for 15 months as it tries to restart all at once.

“Passenger demand has come roaring back quicker than anticipated,” says Mike Durocher, senior vice president at Prospect Airport Services, a Des Plaines firm that provides baggage handlers, aircraft-cleaning crews, ticket-counter agents and other workers at 33 airports. “It’s a very tough labor market right now. We’re all scrambling to get people in the door.”

The company laid off about 1,000 employees at O’Hare and Midway when COVID hit. It has recalled all laid-off employees. “We’re doing OK,” Durocher says. “We’re meeting our commitments.”

About 50,000 people work at the two airports. Airlines rely on outsourcers to handle ticketing, loading and unloading aircraft, cleaning planes between flights and fueling. If they have difficulty finding staff, it’s that much more difficult for airlines to crank up their operations.

Finding airport workers is a challenge in the best of times because employees generally have to travel longer distances to get to work, go through security, pay more for parking and food, and schedules can be more demanding.

Vendors took another blow last week. Pay rates for many workers rose from $14.25-$14.85 per hour July 1 when the city minimum wage rose to $15. The boost in minimum wage will push up pay rates for other workers.

“Airports are always in a difficult hiring situation,” says Tom Gimbel, CEO of the LaSalle Network, a staffing firm—LaSalle does not do work at the airport. “Right now, they’re in the worst situation of anybody.”

When companies do find workers, it takes longer to bring them on board because employees have to undergo background checks to get security clearance to work at the airport. The process can take a couple of weeks. As airport operations picked up in May, the city’s badging operations at the airports were quickly overrun with both existing employees seeking renewals and new hires getting new badges. The city has hired a staffing firm to add badging clerks.

In the meantime, restaurants and retailers also are looking to technology, such as kiosks, for help. Hudson News recently opened a Midway store that allows customers to purchase products with Amazon technology instead of standing in line. Vending machines that contain clothing and sunglasses also have been added.

Home Run Inn Pizza at Midway, which is beating pre-COVID level sales thanks to a location close to Southwest Airlines’ busiest gates, is also encouraging online ordering.

“There’s more business than we have the people to meet,” says Alan Potekin, regional operations manager. “We’re not fully staffed. We’re trying to push as many guests as we can to use technology to order to take some pressure off our staff.”