AAFES facing challenges similar to civilian retailers
AAFES associate Sharon Smith stocks shelves at the PXtra Dec. 1. Smith is one of more than 200 employees working for AAFES, which is experiencing substantial staff shortages – mostly in its food service operations – largely due to the pandemic. (Photo Credit: T. Anthony Bell ) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – “Help wanted” posters and banners have become a ubiquitous feature of nearly all civilian restaurant and retail establishments outside the installation.

Conversely, the pandemic-induced circumstance is less obvious on Fort Lee, where the Army and Air Force Exchange Service manages or provides oversight of more than 30 facilities. That does not mean, however, the government retailer is not dealing with its fair share of workforce-related problems.

“One of the main challenges we’re facing this holiday season versus previous ones primarily revolve around our staffing levels,” reported Eric W. Desveaux, AAFES Fort Lee general manager. “2021 has proven extremely challenging for recruitment and retention of associates.”

The local AAFES operation employs roughly 200 individuals across a portfolio that includes the main exchange; eating establishments such as Burger King, Subway, Popeyes and Starbucks; and several convenience stores. The restaurants have suffered much more than those selling merchandise, according to Desveaux.

“What we’re seeing is that overall retail has done better, but the food area is where we’ve been hurting the most,” he said. “It’s been very, very difficult to recruit, attract and maintain associates.”

Reasons for pandemic-related employment shortages vary from those deciding to become stay-at-home parents, those fearful of catching COVID-19 and those opting for career changes or the highest-paying gigs they can get. Desveaux said restaurant work, in particular, has become the bottom rung of last resorts.

“The perception that potential employees have with food service is that it’s hot, it’s dirty, it’s messy and it’s stressful,” he said. “To a certain extent, some of that does apply. Typically, if you’re working in the kitchen and handling food, it’s going to be messy and that is not desirable or seen as prestigious for our potential employees.”

AAFES facing challenges similar to civilian retailers
Sgt. Jamie Space, Foxtrot Company, 832nd Ordnance Battalion, shops for goods at the AAFES PXtra store Dec. 1. It is one of more than 30 establishments managed or overseen by the Exchange Service at Fort Lee. (U.S. Army photo by T. Anthony Bell) (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

The perception has been pervasive in communities across the country as well. According to a June report by the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, the food service industry nationwide is experiencing a 12 percent reduction in the workforce (roughly 1.5 million fewer employees) compared to pre-pandemic levels. AAFES employment here is down more than 30 percent, said Desveaux.

Restaurant employers across the country have offered hourly wage increases and substantial sign-on bonuses as a remedy. AAFES – which has to compete with local eating establishments for workers – does not have the flexibility to increase wages as an incentive.

“Because we’re bound by DOD policy and regulation on our pay scales,” he said, “we really can’t say, ‘OK we’re going to be more competitive with our outside market.’ Our approach has been (to offer) hiring bonuses.”

AAFES Fort Lee has sweetened the prospects of employment by offering as much as $2,000 in sign-up bonuses paid incrementally during the first six months, said Desveaux. Still, not much has improved as a result.

“We’re seeing an increase in applicants, but retention has still been challenging,” he said, noting outside establishments can offer much more.

To mitigate the personnel shortages, AAFES has closed two restaurants here indefinitely, scaled back the daily operating hours of several others or reduced the number of days per week establishments are open. The adjustments were necessary, Desveaux noted, “In order to maintain the associates onboard and still provide quality customer service.”

Citing examples, he said Burger King is now closed Mondays and Tuesdays and Popeyes on Saturdays and Sundays. Arby’s and Subway – located in the Main Exchange food court – are closed until staffing improves.

Although AAFES retail stores have fared better than its restaurants, Desveaux said those employees have not escaped the pressures of dealing with customers growing increasingly irritated over such shortages.

“We do have vacancies in retail, but the positions have been easier to fill,” he said. “Cashiers kind of go hand-in-hand with our food service workers because those are your first-line points of contact for customers, but they really feel that stress. They feel that pressure.”

AAFES’ employment challenges will not subside anytime in the near future, Desveaux honestly admitted. As such, he urges understanding on behalf of community members.

“Please be patient with the staff,” he said, speaking to patrons. “They are all very loyal associates, and they support the overall exchange and installation missions. They’re doing the best they can with what is available to them.”

Lastly, Desveaux made an appeal to those interested in employment, including active duty military personnel.

“If you have free time available and are able to take on a secondary job, we would gladly have you onboard and offer you a hiring bonus,” he said.

It should be noted that service members must get permission from unit leaders before applying for any additional job. An article discussing this is available at militarybenefits.info/part-time-civilian-jobs. For further information about the Fort Lee AAFES hiring process, call 804-861-4329 or visit www.shopmyexchange.com/company/storeDetails.jsp?storeId=1042401.