Juneau visitor industry confronts labor crunch as short cruise ship season approaches

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

The first big cruise ships of the year are bound for Alaska next month, past the halfway point of a typical season. The pandemic may be waning in the state, but its ripple effects have made for a weird summer for visitor industry businesses and for seasonal workers trying to decide if it’s even worth coming back for a short summer.

It’s lunchtime at the Red Dog Saloon in downtown Juneau and the kitschy tourist stop is in its off-season mode. No sawdust on the floor, winter menu items like chicken wings that slow down table turnover are still available, and the raunchy musical talent The Great Baldini is hanging out at the bar instead of behind a microphone and keyboard on stage.

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

Then the saloon doors swing open — but don’t swing shut. Vidic gets especially wide-eyed as a huge party files in. She asks for a head count: 19!

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

Down the road, Tracy’s King Crab Shack seems to have the opposite problem; it’s staffed up, but there are only a few customers.

“Status is, we’re open,” said Tracy LaBarge, who owns the crab shack and other restaurants in town. “We’re happy to be open. It’s definitely better than last year. … I will say, right now, we’re probably all still operating at a loss.”

Her crab shack crew is in good shape, but she said hiring has been tough at her other restaurants, which have reduced hours. The kitchen at her fine dining restaurant wasn’t even open until recently.

“We are paying more. We started paying more during COVID. … We’ve had to raise prices for sure to cover that. Our food costs have gone through the roof, our shipping, everything’s gone way, way up, so —” she pauses for a deep breath. “We’ll see how it goes.”

She thinks a lot of experienced restaurant staff in town have moved on to more stable jobs, and that extra unemployment benefits may be a factor, too.

It’s hard to know how big a role those extra unemployment benefits play. Economists are largely uncertain. Gov. Mike Dunleavy and other Republican governors are betting their economies will be better off without them. They opted to cut off the federally funded bonus this summer, ahead of a September expiration date that Congress set.

Cryston Galletes is on the employee side of the labor shortage. She’s a barista with Heritage Coffee and a cook at the crab shack. She said it’s been weird having her employers compete for her.

“They’ve been trying to, like, make me stay for nights over there, but I was like, ‘No, like, I’m committed to Tracy’s. I told you that when I was hired, I’m going to be staying with them,’” Galletes said.

Galletes is local. But a lot of seasonal workers aren’t, like Dan Palmer.

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

“Completely unexpected, 100% unexpected,” Palmer said. “And I kind of laughed, myself, too, because after, you know, living at my parents’ house for about a year and a half, working at Best Buy here in Minnesota — didn’t take much to get me back up there.”

He put in his notice and booked a $2,400 ferry ticket for himself, his dog and the van they’ll be living out of.

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

But he’s got friends and connections in Juneau that make it worthwhile for other reasons. And he prefers working in crampons over khakis.

By the way, Palmer said he did go on unemployment for months last year, concerned he might bring COVID home from that Best Buy. When conditions improved, he said he did go back to work, even though it meant earning less.

Steve Sahlender is the vice president of Alaska operations for Goldbelt Inc., which runs the Goldbelt Tram. It sells tram rides up to the tree line of Mount Roberts, and opportunities to drink, dine, shop and explore at their facility 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 about 130 seasonal employees plus some year-round staff. Right now, there’s about 20 seasonal employees. The tram is only open three days a week with limited amenities up top because of low customer volume and labor challenges.

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

He thinks the timing of the extra unemployment benefits expiring this month and the return of big cruise ships next month will help the tram ramp back up smoothly.

“It should line up nicely for us, and we’re kind of looking forward to being open fully and running six, seven days a week,” Sahlender said.

But when it comes down to it, the governor, workers, economists — everyone’s basically guessing about what will happen this summer. We won’t know right away if these labor issues are another short-term ripple of the pandemic, or something more persistent.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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