Tired of the Endless Queues at Ben Gurion Airport? Airport Personnel Aren’t Returning To Work – Here’s Why

Endless queues that stretched across the country’s borders during the Passover holiday have once again brought up for public discussion the struggles of numerous employers to “return” their employees to regular work after two years of the pandemic. This is part of a global trend, evident in the difficulty to both hire and bring back unpaid leave service providers across multiple industries. 

We’ve learned to accept that office workers are negotiating terms around flexibility and meaningful jobs. But when it comes to low-wage employers, or service providers, we become very judgmental. We talk about the youth that “prefer to sit at home and live off their parents,” for example, and miss out on the opportunity to understand that the job market has changed in the past two years also for them.

All job seekers now expect more. Jobs that were previously easily staffed, such as restaurant and hotel management, retail, hospitality and yes, also airport personnel, now remain unfilled. Employees feel unmotivated to come back to the work they used to do before the pandemic – and especially to employers that fired them. Service workers are now negotiating what their jobs will be like in the coming years, and it’s not only a conversation about pay. 

Low-wage employees are now rebelling against their meager salaries and opposing the pressures of their jobs, stressful customer-facing conditions, and disrespectful behavior. The pandemic caused these employees to reconsider their work conditions, their lives, and their status. Those who were ready to work in any condition in the past, today are no longer ready to be treated as replaceable employees. Now they remind us that we need them – we need those employees who fill the shelves, take care of children and elderly, deliver packages, and help us be quickly on our way. They want to feel necessary. They want to receive reasonable salaries, not suffer from harassment and bullying, and receive autonomy and appreciation. Or in other words, they want to feel different. They want to receive the attitude reasonably expected of human beings. 

If you now have open positions for service workers, this is your time to adapt to the tremendous changes that the job market has undergone in the past two years. This is the time to understand that it is impossible to operate following the model of low salary and excessive work during the time when employees always have much better options with which to fill their time.

McDonald’s or Costco: Reasonable Pay, Even When Unnecessary

Salary will always be a factor for employees at the low end of the payscale. This is why McDonalds, for example, has increased the salaries they pay. But salary increase is part of the problem, not the solution, especially in industries where employees receive around a minimum wage. As a matter of fact, McDonalds increased salaries as a response to their inability to hire employees, yet in most of the company’s locations and for most jobs the wage is still hovering around minimum wage. So can salary be the only incentive for working at McDonalds?

In contrast, let’s take a look at the benefits policy of the global retailer Costco which for years has been well known for its proactive steps against high turnover in its branches in a variety of ways. It is possible to assume that cashiers at Costco, like in any other wholesaler, view their job as work and not as a career, and that they do not expect to stay in this job for too long. At the same time, we know, also before the pandemic, that turnover is expensive for employers due to the high cost of hiring new employees. Therefore, as a policy, Costco pays its workers much more than the minimum nation-wide salary in the U.S. and increased in recent years the entry salary for its employees several times – a move that makes it clear that the company watches, listens, and responds to the needs of the industry and those of its employees.

Costco understands that if it wants to retain its good employees, it needs to pay them for their services. A reasonable minimum salary is a good start. But it’s not enough. Costco offers its employees a 50% bonus when they are working on Sundays. Not because it is mandated by law (unlike Israel for example, where working during weekends requires higher pay) but because it is the right thing to do.

Moreover, Costco provides all its employees with health insurance, a rare benefit in the U.S., which has a very high monetary value and even further increases employees’ take-home pay. It is no wonder that Costco receives positive feedback from its employees. For instance, Costco has been included in the annual “Best Places to Work” list of Glassdoor ten times in a row since 2012. 

Value Proposition: Supportive Workplace in Every Industry

Salary is not the only reason that prevents airport employees from returning or starting work in this industry. Gone is the era of employment contracts where employees provided their services solely in exchange for monetary compensation. Regardless of the pandemic, too many workplaces felt entitled to unilaterally manage everything related to the work environment, including scheduling timetables, distributing shifts and workloads, employment conditions – all this assuming that they have an unlimited supply of low-wage workers. You’ve heard the stories of waiters not getting paid for overtime shifts, cashier workers lacking chairs, and even academic staff members that get fired at the end of every semester and recruited again at the beginning of the next semester. This is not a good or sustainable business model, nor one that we should return to.

People, including low-wage employees, want a human Employee Value Proposition; they want employers to acknowledge the value that employees bring, and to provide a work environment that provides the feeling of value at a human level. Salary is necessary to maintain day-to-day life, but strong interpersonal relationships, the feeling of community and work driven by purpose are necessary to succeed. If this is not the case in your organization, there is no wonder you are unable to recruit.

So start by asking if your workers would recommend their friends to come work for you. If not, ask yourself why, then improve on what needs to be improved. The market today is transparent, whether in living room conversations or through tools like “Glassdoor.” The candidates you are searching for know if they want to come and work for you before applying. Therefore, you need to have a place like this, and it starts with the people you already have inside.

True, you can not control every customer response, the anger of the person in line or a rude phone call. But you can decide not to place on your service provider full responsibility for the mismatch between your promise and delivery and then demand that this gap is reduced. And also, perhaps by talking to your frontline employees you will discover that they have an idea or two of how things can be done better.

Shifts: To be or not to be? How to be more flexible in work formats and hours

If you think that the conversation about a hybrid workplace does not relate to you, you should give it another thought. Hybrid work is neither about working from home, nor about how many days one works from the office. The two years of the pandemic have taught people to take responsibility and create autonomy over their livelihood and employment. And in this process they learned to manage themselves – when, where, on what, and with whom they work. They are not willing to give up this autonomy, and if in this process they have created for themselves additional sources of income, they are surely not willing to give up on these either.

Job descriptions  did not come down as Torah from Sinai. Neither did shift arrangements. If you let go of the concepts of “shifts” and “jobs” in their traditional format, you will discover that people are happy to work for you, as long as you teach them to customize the job that needs to be done according to the person who is doing it. I learned this lesson together with one VP of Service already during the first quarantine. After being forced to send the entire telephone services department to work from home, he slowly discovered the benefits. For example, he could increase the number of people on the call during rush hours by adding a few more people for a limited number of hours. Then, having disconnected from the standard shift pattern, he realized that he could also recruit “dedicated” people, such as speakers of foreign languages, for limited hours.

In other words, flexibility starts with understanding that there are people out there who will work for you, but in a way that suits them as well. Which means that instead of looking for people to fill jobs, you need to start looking for people to do the work and define the jobs according to their needs. By following this path, you will find that you can achieve the right balance. Too many companies have become accustomed to not paying competitive wages, not offering attractive benefits, and generally not treating employees as people. Now that the world has changed, many businesses end up complaining about the job market instead of understanding how to make themselves a place that people want to work for, even in the conditions of harsh competition for talent.

As long as employers resist adapting to the changing world of work, keep acting as they did a decade ago, and do not examine how things can work differently, they will not be able to bring workers back to work. Instead, companies should now explore where they can improve conditions, such as rebuilding roles and the business environment by putting a person in the center. As an employer, you should allow for new and flexible forms of work, and generally make your company a more attractive workplace. It is not clear how long this moment will last, but as more and more companies are forced to change their thinking patterns, we will get used to the changes and make them the new normal!

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Nirit Cohen

Nirit leads an innovative conversation on the future of work and the strategies required to transform careers, organizations, management as well as broader economic and social systems such as education and civil service.

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