Salt Lake City’s new airport encounters new kind of turbulence: a severe worker shortage

Food and retail outlets report as many as 50% of their jobs remain unfilled. That means longer waits and fewer options for passengers eager to return to the skies.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Travelers walk through Salt Lake City International Airport in March 2021. The new airport and its restaurants are being hit by staffing shortages.

Kym Buttschardt, a founder of Ogden-based Roosters Brewing Co., has spent the past two years planning to launch a satellite restaurant at the new Salt Lake City International Airport.

Now, with travelers vaccinated and excited to jet-set, she’s unsure she can meet the takeoff in demand.

“We will open when we have enough staff,” Buttschardt said, adding that construction on her new airport location wraps next week. “We are actively, actively recruiting. We’ve got a partial team, but we will open when we have enough workers.”

It’s a problem facing many restaurants, retailers and service providers at the new $4.1 billion airport, where managers expect travel to cruise above pre-pandemic levels by fall. Food concession managers report 20% to 50%, if not more, of their airport jobs remain unfilled, and retail is reporting vacancies of up to 30%, according to airport officials.

“I can tell you that one of our concessionaires is paying $18 an hour for [cooks], which is stunning to me,” the airport’s executive director, Bill Wyatt, recently told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board. “I remember we just had a national debate about a $15 minimum wage.”

And it’s not just food and retail businesses that are struggling to keep up with traveler demand.

“We can’t find people to push wheelchairs,” Wyatt said. “We can’t find transportation security officers. We can’t find construction workers.”

Highs and lows

Utah’s economy came roaring back after mandated closures and public health restrictions in 2020 due to the pandemic. The state’s unemployment rate dropped to 2.8% in April compared to 6.1% nationwide, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Job growth is up 2.3% compared to April 2019, back when no one had heard of COVID-19.

Not all sectors are feeling the economic boom equally. Utah experienced big job gains in construction, business services and professional services along with transportation and trade. Leisure, food and hospitality services in the state, however, are down 7,600 jobs compared to the pre-pandemic era.

“This is probably the most challenging time in my 30 years of operating restaurants,” said Buttschardt, who is also a partner in several other restaurants either operating at or planned for the airport, including Panda Express, Uinta Brewing Co. and Fillings & Emulsions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Roosters Craft Kitchen and Taproom, coming soon, at the Salt Lake International Airport, on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

While enhanced unemployment benefits amid the coronavirus were often blamed as a “disincentive” for people to return to the workforce, Utah data shows that is not necessarily the case for retail and food workers. Accommodation and food service was the top industry filing initial unemployment claims early on in the pandemic. Now the sector has dropped to No. 5 for the state’s insured unemployment rate, neck and neck with construction, and behind unemployment claims for workers in industries like waste management, mining and real estate.

Instead, employees aren’t returning to restaurant gigs for a variety of reasons. Some staffers and managers got burned out on the sometimes-grueling work, The Salt Lake Tribune has reported. Some moved on to different careers while furloughed during the pandemic, according to reporting by FOX 13. A Utah Public Radio report found that a big source of restaurant and retail labor — college students — left town and is still taking classes remotely.

With all Utah restaurateurs and some retailers scrambling to find workers, the challenges are only exacerbated at the airport.

“It’s really hard work and consistent work at the airport,” Buttschardt said. “The volume is huge, and it doesn’t stop. It’s just a different way to operate than it is at our street-side locations.”

While those high-volume travel service jobs tend to bring higher pay, it also takes time for potential employees to receive security clearance to work at the airport.

“You get hired and sometimes it can take three weeks to start your job,” Buttschardt said. “By the time you get through airport badging, you’ve already found another job you can start tomorrow. That is a challenge of the airport.”

At least her airport customers have been understanding of the slowdowns and reduced hours caused by the labor shortage.

“They are patient. They’re kind. They know what airports across the nation are facing,” Buttschardt said. “This isn’t just a Salt Lake City International Airport problem; this is a nationwide challenge.”

Tips for passengers

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A mobile food delivery robot rolls through the terminal at Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday, May 24, 2021. Servy is launching SLCtoGo, a contactless food ordering, pay, and delivery service at the airport.

Airport officials offered some tips for travelers to cope with staffing shortages while they wait to catch a flight:

  • Visit SLCtoGo.com to preorder meals and snacks. Passengers can also have their food and beverage orders from participating restaurants delivered to their gate with the service, either by human or robot. Café Rio has its own app that airport customers can use to pick up orders from a locker at the restaurant.

  • Accept that there will be delays. In addition to a labor shortage, the new airport is a whole lot bigger, which means more walking. Arrive at least two hours before boarding for domestic flights and three hours before international flights. Wear comfortable shoes. Download the SLCInternational app (also available on Android) to help navigate the airport and understand how long it will take to get from point to point.

  • Arrange wheelchair assistance before arriving. Passengers with mobility needs should request wheelchair help when they book their plane tickets. Upon arrival at the airport, those passengers can call the control center at 801-575-2401 to have a wheelchair provided.