Max Heigh opened Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just four months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Then, travel sputtered to a stop and business slowed, forcing him to lay off three-quarters of his newly hired staff. 

“It was super tough,” Heigh said. “The business was very inconsistent. It was definitely hard to manage our business while that was happening.”

However, now that the number of travelers passing through Sea-Tac Airport has more than doubled over the past five months, Heigh faces a new challenge: hiring enough workers to accommodate the sudden influx in customers.

“We’ve just been kind of chasing our tails trying to keep up with everything,” Heigh said.

Max Heigh owns Poke to the Max at the Sea-Tac Airport, and Lexi Baruso is the manager. Heigh says his staff has been trying hard to keep up with customers now that travel is on the upswing. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Reported travelers at Sea-Tac soared from 1,402,545 in February 2021 to 3,807,357 in June 2021, creating a dramatically different environment for all airport workers.  

What’s more, this surge in travel comes as the country faces a historic labor shortage. Last month, Seattle-based Alaska Airline executives left their desks to help baggage handlers amid a serious labor shortage, and American Airlines trimmed its overall schedule by 1% to address staffing shortages, maintenance and other issues.

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A change in pace

Sea-Tac Airport’s July 2021 traffic reached almost 70% to 80% of its pre-pandemic traveler load, TSA Federal Security Director Jeff Holmgren said. 

While international travel and the cruise industries haven’t fully bounced back from 2020, TSA Pacific spokesperson Lorie Dankers said domestic travel returned faster than expected.

“Once the vaccine started to become more widely available, all those numbers started to increase, and by April of this year, we were screening more than a million people per day (nationally), and it only took about six weeks for that number to reach 2 million people,” Dankers said. “So it was a very, very rapid recovery.”

Nationally, TSA said in July 2020, just 718,310 travelers passed through security checkpoints, compared to July 2019 when 2,742,882 did. TSA said it wanted to hire 6,000 officers at airports across the country, and so far more than 4,000 have been hired, Dankers said. Of those 4,000, Sea-Tac has hired more than 50 officers, though Holmgren said he’d like to hire more.

Starting hourly wages for TSO officers is $19.89, which includes a 10% increase in pay as a retention incentive, set to expire Sept. 30.

Morale isn’t the problem, according to TSA Transportation Security Manager William Santiago. “We already know that restaurants business, any kind of service industry and front-line workers — everybody’s having trouble hiring people. he said. “We’re doing the best with what we have.”

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Supervisory Transportation Security Officer Shivam Chopra works with passengers at the body scanner at Sea-Tac. “On the floor, it’s a little bit tougher because we don’t have as many officers available,” Chopra said. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Supervisory Transportation Security Officer Shivam Chopra said when traffic started picking up in the spring, TSA had to rethink its staffing models and how each line was staffed to give everyone time for meal breaks.

“On the floor, it’s a little bit tougher because we don’t have as many officers available,” Chopra said. “We were able to adjust ourselves to make sure our checkpoint is running efficiently.”

Perry Cooper, media relations manager at Sea-Tac, said the number of badged employees at the airport went from 25,000 before the pandemic to around 17,500 mid-pandemic. There are now around 19,500 employees back at the airport. 

Cooper said some caveats could impact those numbers. During the pandemic, some badged employees were able to work from home, or relocated to other airports. He said employment numbers tend to fluctuate due to seasonal workers as well.

Tiffany Lee, who works in the Delta Sky Club at Sea-Tac, said workers in the lounge had to help out at Delta ticket counters and gates during the busier weekends and holidays over the past few months.

“Most people in our department, which is Airport Customer Service, are trained to work ticketing, work gates and also help anywhere up on the top floors,” Lee said. “There’s a lot more travel during holidays, so there’s just extra hands on deck.”

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Cooper said the airport estimates that this month, it will reach 86% of its 2019 passenger count.

Help wanted

While more travelers equals more customers, Poke to the Max’s Heigh said business has increased so much, so fast, it’s hard for his staff to keep up. He was able to grow the airport location’s staff to 23 employees — but he said it’s still not enough.

“It’s really been a back-and-forth thing, trying to figure out what we can really manage. We don’t want to overwork our staff, because we want them to want to work for us — they’re all working their behinds off,” Heigh said. “It’s been tough, just to say the least.”

Poke to the Max is offering competitive wages and benefits for new employees, Heigh said, and he started doling out signing bonuses to draw in more workers.

“We are a small company, so we never really thought we’d be doing something like that,” he said. “The airport used to be a place where everyone wanted to work, it’s a secure environment, very steady work, full-time hours available and so forth. Since the pandemic has been happening, it’s been very, very hard to excite people to come back to work.”

Bloomberg reported recently that the national labor shortage is likely to continue through the rest of the year, based on a survey of economists by the National Association for Business Economics. It found that more than half the respondents expect wage costs to increase over the next three months as more businesses increase pay and offer more incentives for work.

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“It’s all over the media right now about the staffing shortages and so forth, but honestly, I don’t think we can say that or emphasize that enough,” Heigh said.

William Santiago, the TSA Transportation Security Manager at Sea-Tac Airport, floats between the different screening stations to keep track of passenger flow and help speed screening along. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

TSA executives at Sea-Tac said they have hosted hiring events every few weeks and are offering signing bonuses and competitive wages to get more officers hired on. 

They offered new hires $500 in signing bonuses for completing paperwork on time, $500 referral bonuses and a retention incentive — on top of a 10% pay increase.

Dankers said unlike other customer-facing jobs, TSA cannot afford to fall behind on staffing.

“I was talking to someone who said they were at a restaurant and several of the tables were empty, there weren’t very many cooks in the kitchen, and there was a long wait,” Dankers said. “We don’t have that option here at Sea-Tac with TSA. We need to be able to make sure we can keep the checkpoints open and fully staffed.”

Across the board, airlines announced they are hiring more workers nationally to address the sudden increase in passengers. American Airlines said it will move 3,300 flight attendants out of long-term leave and hire 800 more before the end of the year, and Delta said it will hire up to 5,000 workers this year, USA Today reported.

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A spokesperson for Alaska Airlines said the airline is operating at 80% of its pre-COVID levels, and expects to hire 2,000 to 3,000 more people between now and next summer. That number includes pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents and ramp service agents, and most of those positions will be in Seattle.

Most airlines were able to avoid mass layoffs through $54 billion in federal funding since March 2020. Jonathan Battaglia, communications director at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said the funding allowed baggage handlers, customer service agents and gate workers to keep their jobs through the pandemic.

“That’s the only reason why people are really able to fly, because we were able to keep those people employed,” Battaglia said.

Lee said many Delta employees, including herself, took time off during the pandemic to avoid layoffs. Thousands of employees across the country took early retirement packages from Delta as well. 

Sea-Tac received $176 million in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act last March, which targeted airports to keep jobs and construction projects. The airport also received $192 million in stimulus money last year and another $37 million in the second stimulus package this year.

While the job listings at Sea-Tac are on par with pre-pandemic numbers, according to Heather Worthley, executive director of Port Jobs, “many job listings are hiring for multiple people for the same position, so the actual number of jobs available is higher than the number of job listings.”

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In August of 2019, Sea-Tac had 223 job openings, but by April 2020, that plummeted to just seven openings. Now, 229 jobs are listed.

Despite the recent spread of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, the surge in travel is expected to persist through at least the end of the summer.

“I’m just very proud of the workforce in the state of Washington and at Seattle. It’s been a time where we’ve seen a lot of resiliency from the workforce quite frankly, a willingness to keep interacting with the public,” Holmgren said. “They just kept coming back to work.”

Lee said she’s enjoyed seeing her “regulars” come through the Sky Club, like those who travel for business every week. 

“I think the emotions definitely were reciprocated from passengers,” Lee said. “There was a sense of just wanting to embrace people and make them feel safe. We are really just happy to see people back.”