Juneau’s visitor industry faces labor shortage as short cruise ship season approaches

Derek Schneider works with king crab legs at Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau on June 8, 2021. Schneider said he was diagnosed with cancer and recovered during the COVID-19 pandemic while living in Colorado. After recovering, he said he was looking forward to returning to work at Tracy’s King Crab Shack, even for a short season. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh / KTOO)

The first major cruise ships of the year are bound for Alaska next month, after half a typical season. The pandemic may be waning in the state, but its ripple effects have made it an odd summer for businesses in the tourism industry and for seasonal workers trying to decide if it’s even worth the effort. come back for a short summer.

It’s lunchtime at the Red Dog Saloon in downtown Juneau, and the kitsch tourist stopover is in off-season mode. No sawdust on the floor, winter dishes like chicken wings that slow the table rolling are always available, and steamy musical talent The Great Baldini hangs out at the bar instead of behind a microphone and keyboard. on the scene.

Even though the big cruise ships aren’t due for a month, it’s pretty busy. Taylor Vidic is the only person working at the front of the house and she has her hands full.

Then the living room doors open, but do not close. Vidic especially has wide eyes when a huge party arrives. She asks for a count: 19!

She sends them to the tables and calls her boss to ask for help.

Further on, Tracy’s King Crab Shack appears to have the opposite problem; there are staff, but there are only a few clients.

“The status is we’re open,” said Tracy LaBarge, owner of the crab shack and other restaurants in town. “We are happy to be open. It is certainly better than last year. … I will say that right now we are probably all still operating at a loss.

Her crab shack crew are in good shape, but she said hiring has been difficult at her other restaurants, which have reduced their hours of operation. The kitchen of his gourmet restaurant was not even open before recently.

“We pay more. We started paying more during COVID. … We had to increase the prices to cover this. Our food costs have exploded, our expeditions, everything has exploded, so… ”She stops to take a deep breath. “We’ll see how it goes. “

She believes that many of the city’s experienced restaurant workers have moved on to more stable jobs and that additional unemployment benefits may also be a factor.

It is difficult to know how important these additional unemployment benefits are. Economists are largely uncertain. Gov. Mike Dunleavy and other Republican governors are betting their economies will be better off without them. They chose to remove the federally funded bonus this summer, ahead of the expiration date set in September by Congress.

Cryston Galletes is on the employee side of the labor shortage. She is a barista at Heritage Coffee and a cook at the crab shack. She said it was weird that her employers were competing for her.

“They tried to get me to stay nights there, but I was like, ‘No, like, I’m signing up for Tracy’s. I told you that when I got hired, I will stay with them, ”said Galletes.

Galletes is local. But many seasonal workers are not, like Dan Palmer.

Palmer is from Minneapolis, where he overcame the pandemic. About a month ago, Above and Beyond Alaska asked him what it would take for him to work his fourth season as a guide with them in Juneau.

“Completely unexpected, 100% unexpected,” said Palmer. “And I laughed a little bit, too, because after, you know, living with my parents for like a year and a half, working at Best Buy here in Minnesota – it didn’t take much. to bring me back there. . “

He put his review up and booked a $ 2,400 ferry ticket for himself, his dog and the van they will be living in.

“Economically, I don’t know if it necessarily makes sense for me to come back and, you know, work while I’m going to be working,” Palmer said.

But he has friends and connections in Juneau who are worth it for other reasons. And he prefers to work in crampons rather than khaki.

By the way, Palmer said he had been unemployed for months last year fearing to bring COVID home from this Best Buy. When conditions improved, he said he returned to work, even if it meant earning less.

Steve Sahlender is the Vice President of Alaska Operations for Goldbelt Inc., which operates the Goldbelt Streetcar. It sells trolley rides to the tree line of Mount Roberts and opportunities to drink, dine, shop, and explore at their facilities up there.

Steve Sahlender, pictured here on June 16, 2021, is the vice president of Alaska operations for Goldbelt Inc. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh / KTOO)

Sahlender said the tram would normally have around 130 seasonal employees plus year round staff. At present, there are approximately 20 seasonal employees. The tram is only open three days a week with limited facilities at the top due to low customer volume and labor issues.

“We adjusted some things, but we didn’t make it more attractive for hiring people,” he said.

He believes the timing of extra unemployment benefits expiring this month and the return of large cruise ships next month will help the streetcar get a smooth start.

“It should line up well for us, and we look forward to being fully open and running six, seven days a week,” Sahlender said.

But at the end of the day, the governor, the workers, the economists – basically everyone is guessing what will happen this summer. We won’t know right away whether these workforce issues are another short-term ripple in the pandemic, or something more persistent.

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