In recent weeks, tenants at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field hired 80 people from a pool of job fair applicants.
Or so they thought.
When all was said and done, only three new hires were fit for work.
The other 77 failed to pass a criminal background check that federal law requires for anyone who works at a U.S. airport. The background check is necessary for clearance [and a badge] allowing employees to venture into the secure areas of the airport on a daily basis.
Bryan Malonowski, the top executive at Clinton National, offered the statistic Tuesday to underscore the level of difficulty that the hospitality industry faces in attracting and retaining employees during the pandemic multiplied by the additional hurdles it faces in hiring people in an airport environment.
The list of disqualifying crimes is broad, according to a document provided by the airport.
They range from hijacking an aircraft and other serious aviation-related violations such as interfering with flight crew and carrying a weapon aboard an aircraft to the more common felonies typically found in state court and in the backgrounds of a large portion of the population. They include theft, illegal possession of a controlled substance punishable by a maximum prison term of more than one year and "dishonesty, fraud or misrepresentation."
The situation has frustrated Pamela Mobley. She is president and chief executive officer of The RSI Group, an independent municipal advisory firm.
Her firm is one of two minority firms sharing in the concessions contract at Clinton National. The majority partner is HMSHost, part of an Italian multinational company that provides food and beverage service at the Clinton National and some 120 airports around the world.
RSI and the other minority partner, J.Q. Enterprises Inc., each have a 15% stake in the contract with HMSHost as part of a joint venture in which they share in the profits or losses as well as contributions of capital under the percentages required in the joint venture.
Mobley has assisted in the hiring. Or has tried.
"It's like almost impossible," she told members of the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission. "It's like they make it through the interview stage, they go for the badging and can't pass the background check."
Michael Price, an HMSHost executive, said his company has retained an outside recruiting firm as well as internal recruiters to help return staffing to prepandemic levels. The minimum starting wage has been raised to $13 an hour, but many new workers, particularly cooks, and employees who work odd shifts are paid more. And those starting at minimum wage can get raises once they complete additional training, he said.
Mobley said those efforts haven't been enough.
"It's not that the people aren't out there, it's just finding the people who can pass the background check that we're having the problem with," she said. "I don't know what you do about that situation."
Commissioner Bill Walker, himself a small business owner, expressed some sympathy.
"That is challenging, and I think it will be challenging for everybody as we go forward, and there's some things that may have been issues in background checks in the past that may not be considered to be an issue in the future," he said. "It just depends on how egregious the background might be. It's a problem that's going to be a nationwide issue."
But he and other commissioners are also expressing increasing impatience with the slow return to normal for the different concession outlets throughout the airport.
Walker said he arrived at Clinton National one afternoon to find the Burger King outlet closed even though the concourse was bustling. Price said HMSHost only has enough employees to cover one shift and the 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift was selected to be the hours for Burger King.
Walker and another commission member, Patrick Schueck, noted if they cannot fully staff their business, they don't get paid. Throughout the pandemic, the airport has granted relief to HMSHost and other tenants from making the minimum guaranteed payments that are required to operate at the airport.
In the case of HMSHost, it is required under its 10-year contract to pay at least $50,000 monthly. That was waived during the depths of the pandemic. But as the pandemic has waned and passenger traffic has reached 85% of pre-pandemic levels, the company is paying the airport $38,000 a month, with the balance covered by part of the $40 million in federal pandemic relief money the airport has been provided, according to Malinowski.
Malonowski wanted to extend the relief through November and December, but the commission only agreed to extend it one month until HMSHost presented a plan on how to increase staffing levels.