Boosting Workers' Hours May Be Solution to Holiday Hiring Woes

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer November 19, 2018
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​There's good news and bad news for retailers this year as Black Friday—the pinnacle of the holiday shopping season—fast approaches.

Forecasters expect sales to be lifted by a roaring economy, record-low unemployment, high consumer confidence and signs of long-awaited wage gains. But those same positive employment metrics have made it harder to fill seasonal jobs in retailers' stores, warehouses and distribution operations—though employers are trying hard to hire new staff. The staffing challenge has led some employers to offer their part-time workers more hours this holiday season, even though the official data doesn't register that uptick.

"Openings are outpacing hires across industries, but it is particularly acute in retail," said Josh Wright, chief economist for recruitment software firm iCIMS. Based on iCIMS applicant tracking data, retail hires were up 21 percent over 2017, while new job openings were up 28 percent.

Retailers are projected to hire approximately 650,000 seasonal workers for the holidays this year, up more than 10 percent from 2017, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), based in Washington, D.C. 

"There's absolutely been more difficulty hiring seasonal workers this year," said Ana Smith, NRF senior director of media relations. "Part of having such a strong economy is that the pool of seasonal workers gets a lot smaller, and those roles get more difficult to fill. In addition to raising wages—the most competitive way to get the right applicants—retailers are getting more creative about attracting folks to come work at their stores, offering 401(k) benefits, paid time off, paid skills training, transportation subsidies and other perks to stay competitive."

Retailers plan to pay as much as 54 percent more than they did a year ago, according to a national survey by Snag, an Arlington, Va.-based online staffing platform for hourly work.

In January, Walmart announced an $11 across-the-board minimum wage, along with a new parental-leave policy. Target made $12 its wage floor, with a path to $15 by 2020, and is offering $500 gift cards via store lotteries. J.C. Penney is offering holiday workers the chance to win vacation packages. And holiday workers can usually count on premium employee discounts.

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Boosting Hours   

Another option for employers is offering their current part-time workers more hours. Instead of hiring additional seasonal staff, Walmart is asking existing associates to take extra shifts.

"Retailers are ramping up hours for their permanent employees to offset having to hire more people," said Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior partner who specializes in the retail industry. "That's usually the first step, and for some organizations it's easier to do when they have people only working a median of about 15 hours to 25 hours a week. The only thing they have to be careful about is benefits eligibility coming into play."

Smith said smaller businesses can be more flexible in making changes to workers' hours without getting into overtime issues. Another technique retailers have used is hiring people in July for back-to-school season, and then keeping those workers on in anticipation of the end-of-year holidays, she said.

The decline in seasonal job postings, reported by Indeed, is more evidence that retailers are making do with who they already have on staff. According to an analysis of job postings for part-time work by the Austin, Texas-based job search engine, retail jobs experienced the largest decline in the share of all part-time jobs posted since 2016—by nearly 40 percent in some positions.

"Retail industry jobs are strongly represented among both the occupations with the largest declines in the part-time share of postings and the largest increases in the full-time share," said Nick Bunker, a Washington, D.C.-based economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab. "Retail employers appear to be shifting from part-time to full-time jobs as three of these positions—apparel associate, lead associate and sales consultant—are also among the occupations with the largest increases in full-time share of job postings."

But the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from October shows that the average workweek for retail jobs is 30.8 hours, essentially the same as it was in October 2017. Hours have been trending down since reaching 31.2 hours in June.

And there may not be much desire left to take extra hours, according to the BLS measure of involuntary part-time work, which has declined year over year. "There's little or no slack left in the labor market on this issue—there's a dwindling supply of people who are currently employed part time seeking full-time work," Wright said.

But a team of researchers led by Daniel Schneider, an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Kristen Harknett, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, are calling the BLS measure into question. Schneider and Harknett, who lead the Shift Project, polled 11,000 retail and restaurant workers earlier this year and found that 59 percent said they wanted more hours.

In a separate report, the Shift Project surveyed 438 workers employed at large chain retailers in Connecticut and found that 58 percent of those workers overall and 64 percent working less than 30 hours per week reported that they would like to work more hours. A similar study in Philadelphia among 687 workers found that 62 percent overall and 74 percent working less than 30 hours per week said that they would like to work more hours.

Workers Want Predictability

"It's not just the number of hours that's important but the predictability of those hours," Wright said. "Unpredictable schedules are one of the biggest drawbacks to being involved in part-time and contingent work. Having autonomy over hours gives workers more flexibility, but flexible and unpredictable puts them in a difficult spot. It's hard to plan your life when you have unpredictable work hours."

Scheduling practices are beginning to change, however, as some localities have passed labor laws that regulate work schedules, Schneider said. "These new labor regulations also include a provision requiring that employers offer additional hours to their part-time workers before hiring additional part-time employees."

Walmart announced Nov. 14 that its U.S. retail workers will have access to predictive scheduling through an internal app by the end of the month.


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