Staffing Concerns at the ‘Ol Ballgame

Nov 5, 2021

Why a good gig is losing its luster

By Jim Riordan, Ph.D., Florida Atlantic University MBASport

Way back in the day, people would lie about their age so they could enlist in the armed forces. Me? I fibbed so I could join Local 176, the Licensed Ushers and Ticket-Takers Union in New York.

I had to develop and earn my seniority because it was a coveted job to be an usher and ticket-taker in a New York stadium or arena. The seniority list for ushers at the old Shea Stadium once was 400 names long.

High school and college students used these part-time jobs to help cover their education expenses. Retirees supplemented their pensions. Husbands and wives viewed the work as secondary income streams.

These were good gigs, and no one wanted to give them up. Until now.

Traditional and social media stories abound about the large numbers of Americans who are quitting their jobs in search of better opportunities in a wide-open employment landscape. But some people still are hesitant to return to the workforce since the nation “reopened” after the height of the pandemic. 

On Sept. 6, 2021, the three unemployment benefits programs established under the CARES Act expired. At the time of the expiration, 7.2 million people were receiving benefits from at least one of the three programs.

It was right around this time that reports started to circulate of long lines at concession stands and entry gates at college football games. The reasoning for these delays was two-fold: Guests not being accustomed to the new e-ticketing and cashless concessions and parking, and a severe shortage of game-day employees to satisfy staffing needs.

The sudden dearth of personnel is being seen by those stadiums and arenas and other public assembly facilities that manage their own in-house operations as well as those that outsource the jobs to third-party contractors. Each account of game-day problems is unique, but they all still maintain a common thread.

A Big 10 program is seeking “volunteers” to help combat a shortage. Those stepping forward will be given a shirt, parking and a meal. An Atlantic Coast Conference university offered a flat rate of $250 for a six-hour shift (more than $41 an hour). Only 22 people signed up.

A program from the Southeastern Conference saw a no-show rate of 40% of the 1,500 required positions. In many cases, senior-level athletic department personnel are scanning tickets, performing pat-downs and bag checks and directing cars in parking lots.

The crisis is not limited to college events. An NFL stadium in the South is paying ushers and ticket-takers $17 an hour. An NHL/NBA arena on the West Coast is paying close to $20 an hour for the same service.

To deal with the staffing shortages, some facilities are ramping up a tactic that already is common in many venues: “Deploy then re-deploy,” in which personnel are placed in the most-needed, most-important jobs at a given time and then moved to different positions as the event unfolds.

Some workers first are concentrated in the parking lots collecting fees and checking passes, while others are handling wand scans, bag-checks and ticket-taking at the entry gates. As the day progresses, many of those same workers are re-deployed to the stadium concourse or to on-field positions and posts within the seating area.

The re-deploy method works well in many venues across the country, but not in areas with strict labor union job jurisdictions. In those venues, a security guard, for example, performs security functions only and does not also take tickets or usher guests to seats. 

It is obvious that this crisis is not limited to the sports and entertainment industries. Shelves in supermarkets sit empty because there aren’t enough workers to stock items or to deliver the products. Some people have trouble getting their medications because the local pharmacy has closed for good for lack of workers.

Just as consumers expect the supermarket or pharmacy to be there and to have what they need, fans also count on top-notch experiences. The hope is that more people will return to the workforce after vaccine booster shots become more common and that others will feel better about taking jobs once they see crowded games not turning into super-spreader events.

But until then, fans will have to lower their expectations every time they set foot in a stadium or arena.

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