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Short-staffed retailers struggle to lure workers in a tight market

Customers wait to pay for their purchases at

Customers wait to pay for their purchases at Target in Levittown on a pre-pandemic Black Friday. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Local businesses are gearing up for the holiday shopping season, but if current labor trends are any indication, many will be handling their busiest months of the year without the workers they need.

Retailers big and small, as well as warehousing and distribution businesses, are likely to feel the brunt of seasonal hiring woes as consumer demand ramps up, resulting in the need for thousands of seasonal workers across the Island. On average, Island retailers have added 10,000 temporary workers each year between October and December over the last decade, according to state labor economists.

'This is probably the hardest job market that we’ve ever seen on Long Island.'

Robert Graber, chief executive of Long Island Temps staffing agency

"This is probably the hardest job market that we’ve ever seen on Long Island," said Robert Graber, chief executive of staffing agency Long Island Temps in Hicksville. "And there are multiple factors behind that."

Hiring by national chains paying higher wages, health concerns over the COVID-19 delta variant, and continued disruptions to global supply chains have all contributed to more competition for a limited supply of workers willing to take in-person jobs.

Holiday hiring has always been a challenge, said Graber, who's been in recruiting for over 25 years. But the last few months have proved to be extraordinarily difficult for recruiters, especially those filling hourly, in-person jobs, he said.

Prospective workers are choosier in the jobs they’re willing to take, with many more now looking for work-from-home opportunities, he said.

"It’s really difficult to get people out of their house and into an environment that they might view as crowded," Graber said. That puts local retailers and distributors who are paying at or close to minimum wage -- $14 per hour on the Island, set to increase to $15 on Dec. 31 — at a recruiting disadvantage.

"Companies are going to want to hire more than they’re going to be able to," Graber said. "Most companies are going to be short-staffed for the season."

The hiring crunch goes far beyond local firms.

Employees direct November shoppers at the Westbury Target

Target

Plans to hire 30,000 fewer seasonal staffers than last year.

Will offer existing employees 5 million additional hours companywide this season, equating to $75 million in extra wages.

Photo by Bloomberg/ David Williams

Target, which has more than 1,900 retail locations throughout the country, announced last month that it planned to hire 100,000 workers for the holiday season, 30,000 fewer seasonal staffers than it hired last year.

To make up the difference, Target said it will offer existing employees 5 million additional hours companywide this season, equating to $75 million in extra wages.

Walmart said it hopes to hire 150,000 seasonal employees nationwide. In a recent promotion of its hiring plans, the retail giant touted its increased starting pay – now $16.40 per hour on average, tuition reimbursement program and reliable scheduling.

"Many retailers are offering higher pay, bonuses, and other incentives to attract workers," said Shital Patel, labor market analyst in the state Labor Department's Hicksville office.

"The rise of e-commerce has also changed the type of jobs available during the holiday season," she said. "Nationally, retailers are hiring more supply chain and warehouse workers, and locally stores are adding more staff to fulfill curbside pickup and ship-from-store orders."

The courier and messenger sector, for example, added a record 4,700 workers in November and December last year, Patel said.

Workers at Amazon's Fulfillment Center on Tuesday, October

Amazon

Recruiting 1,500 workers for permanent shipping, logistics jobs in NYC and on Long Island.

Offering signing bonuses of $1,000 to $3,000 at some sites.

Photo by TNS/ Irfan Khan

Amazon, which is adding warehouses across Long Island, said last month it would recruit 1,500 workers for permanent shipping and logistics jobs in New York City and on Long Island. Pay averages $18 per hour, and the online retailer is offering signing bonuses of $1,000 to $3,000 at some sites, a spokeswoman said.

For every hire snatched up by a huge firm like Target, Walmart or Amazon, there is one less potential employee a local firm can bring on.

"There is such high competition from those larger companies that have a stronger foundation, that are offering bonuses to come on, and higher wages," said Erica Chase-Gregory, director of the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College.

Many local employers had hoped that the expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits early last month would lead to a cascade of applicants. That has yet to happen, Chase-Gregory said.

"They were thinking they would have this influx of people looking for work," she said. "From what I can tell it hasn’t been the answer that they were hoping for."

In most cases with small firms, family members are working more hours "because of the shortage of staff, and they’re tired," she said.

Laura Armellino, right, assistant manager of the Funkey

Funky Monkey Toys & Books

Put in merchandise orders two months ahead of normal to combat supply chain issues.

Recruiting for workers by contacting colleges and using Facebook.

Photo by Newsday/ John Paraskevas

"We’re having a lot of difficulty," said Stanley Greenman, owner of Funky Monkey Toys & Books in Greenvale’s Wheatley Plaza. "We’re recruiting as much as we can by contacting colleges, signs in the window, and using Facebook."

Greenman, who launched the family business in 2004, said in an ideal world, he’d double his small staff of five to help with the holiday season. But even finding a small number of workers has proved challenging, he said, a hurdle come the holidays.

"It’s life or death without trained associates to run registers, to pack our merchandise, to help the customers," he said.

Complicating the issue: global delays in supply chains. Greenman said he's put in orders for merchandise two months ahead of normal in hopes of having enough stock. However, early deliveries means stocking more toys earlier and needing more staff sooner.

"You may see me at a register if you come to the store," he said.

Danielle Lanciotti, director of marketing for Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace, which has seven Long Island locations, said the company has been dealing with its own hiring challenges. "We’ve definitely experienced it too," she said.

Cheese is prepared at the cheese counter inside

Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace

Hopes to hire 350 seasonal workers and around 50 more permanent full- and part-time staffers on LI.

Photo by Newsday/ Steve Pfost

The grocer, which employs 1,200 across all its stores, hopes to hire 350 seasonal workers on Long Island in the coming weeks and around 50 more permanent full- and part-time staffers.

The recruitment situation has improved somewhat over the last two months, Lanciotti said, a development she credits to increased vaccination rates. "The more the vaccination rate increased and the more the lockdowns eased, the more applicants felt comfortable putting out their feelers."

Lanciotti said the chain is hopeful that it will find the workers it needs as November nears, a pressing timeline given the amount of prepared foods the grocer serves up from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

"Just the sheer volume means we need adequate staffing," she said. "If we don’t have the staffing, we can’t meet the customers’ expectations."

For some owners, the staffing challenge goes beyond the next few months.

At AHC Appliances in Cedarhurst manager Maya Del

AHC Appliances

Would like to fill 5 permanent positions, but doesn’t see it happening anytime soon. 

In a switch, owner Sandy Tau, right, is willing to hire inexperienced workers.

Photo by Newsday/ J. Conrad Williams Jr.

"Honestly, it’s not just the holidays," said Sandy Tau, owner of AHC Appliances in Cedarhurst. "The whole nature of the appliance industry and furniture industry in the U.S. … we’re a very high-demand industry right now."

With the pandemic’s impact on travel and discretionary spending, many across the country and on Long Island poured money into home remodeling and renovation efforts. Due to supply shortages, many higher-end appliances are taking months to reach stores.

"It’s been almost two years of demand we haven’t seen before," Tau said. "We can’t keep up."

Tau, who employs 15, said she’d like to fill five more permanent positions, but doesn’t see it happening anytime soon. Part of the problem, she said, is that appliance sales are best handled by experienced sales people who know the products, a rare find in a labor market as competitive as this year’s.

"You don’t want to sell a $25,000 appliance and find out ‘Oops, I’ve made a mistake,’" she said. So, in hopes of landing the help she needs, Tau said she’s reaching beyond her comfort zone and is willing to bring in sales and support hires without experience.

"I don’t think I’ve hired an inexperienced person in 20 years. I wouldn’t consider somebody who didn’t have experience," she said. "At this point, I am willing to train somebody."

The seasonal struggle is the latest evolution in a national labor shortage that’s been impacting operations at businesses in almost every industry.

"I’m on the phone with ranchers out in the Midwest, I’m talking to our growers out in California, I’m talking to local fishermen. The phrase that you keep hearing is ‘I can’t hire enough people,’" said Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of regional grocer Stew Leonard’s.

Dawn Levy Store Manager waters plants at Stew

Stew Leonard’s

Looking to hire 300 to 400 seasonal workers at its East Meadow and Farmingdale locations. 

Temporarily raised starting wages to $16 an hour on LI and has seen a big increase in applicants.

Photo by Johnny Milano

 

He said his company has shared those hiring challenges this year, and is now looking to hire 300 to 400 seasonal workers at its East Meadow and Farmingdale locations.

To compete, the grocer on Oct. 1 instituted a seasonal boost in its Long Island starting wages to $16 an hour and Leonard said they've seen a big increase in the number of interested applicants. The starting wage will return to $15 an hour on Jan. 1.

"There’s been a lot of labor rate increases and people are offering hiring bonuses and so you really have to make a decision; do you want to be a premium payer or not," Leonard said. "I would say right now it has opened up the flood gates."

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