Closed Until Further Notice
Southwest Airlines said its 2022 holiday meltdown cost $825 million in lost revenue. Jeramey Lende /

Closed Until Further Notice

Attitudes about work are changing, with real consequence.

Three days before Christmas, the eastern two-thirds of the nation was hit by a dramatic winter weather system, with high winds and cold temperatures. Because it would affect major population centers, it got a lot more national publicity than usual, and even Minnesotans seemed oddly on edge.

The forecast for cold, snow, and wind was hardly unprecedented by local standards and presented dangers in rural settings. But urban businesses began announcing preemptive closings to protect employees, including, but not limited to, the U.S. Postal Service, Trader Joe’s, Juut Salons, and more. It struck me as atypical behavior for Minnesota businesses facing tough winter weather.

The proximity to the holiday was particularly unfortunate. These were not three ordinary weekdays, and businesses were forgoing a lot of revenue and customer goodwill by the weather-related closing. (Never mind the specter of those workers and their customers turning to Amazon and DoorDash, forcing another poor sap to take on twice the workload.)

It was a break with the compact that had held since I arrived in Minnesota 40 years ago, which is that we live in a cold climate and part of living here is to function in it, because people still need to eat, receive essential letters and packages in the mail, and travel for important annual visits to loved ones.

I mention travel because we all now know that Southwest Airlines suffered a meltdown in the days after Christmas, prompted by its insistence to try to operate through the storm, which caused disruptions throughout its system (and those of all airlines). Those problems cascaded at Southwest, causing the airline to basically shut down for several days to reposition crews, which the airline had lost track of due to its IT inadequacies. Virtually all its MSP service was cancelled.

The bloodlust on social media was extreme. A man missed an organ transplant. People lost final visits with dying loved ones. One aviation journalist tweeted that the airline was ruining people’s lives and needed to be dealt with criminally.

Southwest was deservedly pilloried for spending on stock buybacks rather than modern crew scheduling software, but what naïve young journalists were missing is that a lot of the chaos was rooted in choices made not by Southwest’s management, but its workers.

Southwest’s holiday problems began when abnormally large numbers of its ground (“ramp”) staff at its Denver and Baltimore hubs stopped showing up to work, apparently due to the cold. Managers declared an operational emergency to force people to work. That made thing worse. A 737 from Florida to Denver had to turn back mid-flight because there was no one to handle it on arrival.

Southwest wearing the black hat was ironic. It was, for decades, the darling of the people because it didn’t charge for checked bags or seat assignments and didn’t level change fees. It was an airline that engendered fierce loyalty among its flyers and staff. Its stock symbol, “LUV,” was emblematic of Southwest’s relationship with those stakeholders. Southwest resisted rapid technological evolution, in part because it believed it would erode the personal touch the airline was famous for.

When I suggested to some of the most strident Southwest denouncers that it was the very “stay safe,” people-oriented culture they cherish that unleashed the problems at the airline, they rationalized. They insisted the company was somehow more venal than Trader Joe’s and the USPS.

To me, it was part and parcel. I hear regularly from public-facing employers that the under-35 workforce is different. Work is not supposed to be hard, and when it is, it’s time for a mental health day. And that ethos is defended in the culture. So it’s now acceptable to ask people to go without groceries, mail, garbage collection, and even medical care because it will cause the workers who deliver it to revolt—meaning quit.

We have seen a necessary and overdue correction in the worker/employer power dynamic in the last few years—too many Americans work for less than a living wage, and rising wages have helped improve that situation. But facing the reality of chronic worker shortages and declining productivity, I ask a basic question: What is our obligation to one another when essential work is onerous?

In the past, we asked immigrants to take hard jobs as a path to citizenship and opportunity for their kids. But it seems like Americans would rather miss their flight and mail than squeeze open the southern border to people who will make our country richer, not poorer.

Absent that, how can employers motivate workers to take on tough, often well-paid, union jobs, whether on the airport ramp or in an ICU? Is our future increasingly like Qatar, where foreign workers must be imported to ensure the native-born can work from a coffee shop, except when storms threaten?

Folks, winter isn’t coming. It’s here.

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