Keep Seasonal Workers Coming Back

Savvy recruiters build loyal holiday crews.

By Stephenie Overman Nov 1, 2009
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November CoverIf Santa is looking for a job during the holidays, he will need to sport a naturally white beard and pass a thorough background check.

Frank Martinez, who runs Naturally Santa Inc., has a simple strategy for finding Santas who meet those qualifications. "We don’t advertise for them in general. In 90 percent of the cases, our Santas look for other Santas. We have guys all over the country, working in malls from coast to coast and border to border. They run into people who fit the description" and recommend them, he says. "You have to have your own naturally white hair and beard. Hence, the name Naturally Santa."

Recruiters looking for seasonal workers—with or without beards—have plenty to choose from because hiring for this season is expected to be weak—as it was last year. In 2008, the U.S. employment gain of 520,000 for the holidays was approximately three-fourths of the average during the previous five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and seasonally adjusted employment fell by 135,000 in select retail industries.

Experienced recruiters in a variety of industries already have a cadre of workers who return holiday after holiday. Talent scouts prize these workers because they’re flexible and already know the ropes. In this article, recruiters offer advice on attracting and retaining such a loyal following.

Beyond Santa

Some recruiters hold onto their seasoned seasonal workers year after year by offering them flexible hours and employee discounts.

Nearly half of L.L. Bean’s seasonal employees "will be folks who worked for us before, usually the previous year. We work pretty hard to keep our return population because they require a shorter training time and are more productive," explains Bob Schmidt, manager of peak and volume hiring for the outdoor apparel and gear company.

L.L. Bean hires extra workers for pre-summer and back-to-school peaks, but the biggest ramp-up occurs for the Christmas rush.

The company sends newsletters several times a year to keep in touch with seasonal employees. Given the 2009 economy, Schmidt expects a higher-than-average percentage of experienced seasonal workers to be returning in the fourth quarter. He expects to hire 4,500 to 5,000 seasonal employees, about the same as last year. In 2007, the company employed about 6,000.

The seasonal employees work mainly at warehouse distribution and contact centers in Maine, taking telephone and e-mail orders. Temporary workers also help handle the crush at the flagship retail store and returns facilities in Freeport, Maine.

Seasonal Hiring

Just how many Santas, security guards, salespeople, cashiers, and call center and warehouse workers do companies need this holiday season?

Manpower Inc. Chairman and CEO Jeff Joerres predicts that the hiring intentions of U.S. companies will be "sluggish."

Joerres’ prediction is based on a Manpower survey that asked more than 28,000 employers in the United States and Puerto Rico: "How do you anticipate total employment at your location to change in the three months to the end of December 2009 as compared to the current quarter?" Survey participants were not derived from Manpower’s customer base.

According to the survey, released in the fall, hiring in the U.S. wholesale and retail trade sector was expected to be down slightly in the fourth quarter. Overall, 14 percent of companies surveyed by Manpower said they expected a decline in staff levels during the fourth quarter, while 12 percent expected to add to their workforces, resulting in a net employment outlook of minus 2 percent. After seasonal adjustment, the net employment outlook becomes minus 3 percent, the weakest in the 47-year history of the survey.

"The warehouse employs three shifts with close to 500 to 600 on third shift. If we didn’t have people who want to work third shifts as seasonal jobs, we would be hard-pressed," Schmidt admits.

Older workers make up a substantial part of its seasonal workforce, and L.L. Bean has been honored as one of AARP’s best employers for workers over 50.

Yet the flexibility of seasonal work is a boon to many demographic groups. "People may be looking for a second job for two or three months. They may think it’s too hard to do a second job year-round, but that they can do it for the season," Schmidt notes. "If they have a day job, they can start at 6 p.m. and work until 10."

He likes hiring workers taking on second jobs because "they show up. They are doing it for the reason that they need to do it."

Generous discounts—sometimes 30 percent to 40 percent off—make up part of the attraction. And, in L.L. Bean’s employee store, returned items are deeply discounted.

Kirlin’s Inc., with more than 100 Midwestern Hallmark stores, calls on seasonal workers at Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day and fourth-quarter holidays.

"Some have done the work for years," says Louis Frame, director of personnel for Kirlin’s, based in Quincy, Ill. Often, he explains, these workers are loyal customers who know the products and are known by store managers, especially in small towns.

Some workers may have full-time jobs, but "we have a lot of mature people who may be retired and they want a little extra income for the holidays," Frame says.

Again, the attractions include flexibility and an employee discount throughout the year.

These pools of seasonal workers are small, he adds. A small store may have "a couple people who are eligible, while larger stores have four or five people who just work on holidays."

Larger stores use bag stuffers and in-store recruiting tables to line up more temporary workers for the holidays.

Yet with the national unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, many job applicants are hunting for full-time, not seasonal, employment, Frame says. He tells such candidates, "Sorry, we don’t have any available, but we would have [seasonal work] as an option. It is a way to move up the ladder. It’s just for the holiday, but it could lead to full-time work."

Security Details

Hiring well-trained, well-vetted security guards for the holidays is especially important. Last year, on "Black Friday"—the day after Thanksgiving—a Wal-Mart employee in Long Island, N.Y., was trampled to death after shoppers, waiting for the store to open, pushed through locked doors. On the same day in Palm Desert, Calif., two suspected gang members shot each other to death in a Toys "R" Us store. Several days later, a man wounded a Kmart manager at a Philadelphia store during an argument.

Because of the high-profile nature of the job, all security guards must be screened, says Chris E. McGoey, head of McGoey Security Consulting in Los Angeles. Most states require a license or registration process for uniformed contract guards that includes verification of identity, fingerprinting, and reference and criminal background checks. "Private security employees are usually exempt from these screening requirements, but prudent employers will follow the same protocol since they are drawing from the same labor pool," McGoey says.

Seasonal security guards "could unexpectedly be elevated to a position of trust and be given access to keys, alarm codes and company assets. Not anticipating this probability could put a company or the public at risk."

While some security duties are mainly public relations and involve greeting, directing, observing and reporting with little potential for confrontation or dishonesty, "other security jobs might involve trust, access to assets or confrontation with the public. It is important to hire the person with the proper demeanor and physical capabilities suitable for the expected duties," McGoey says.

A problem can arise "when a passive person is hired for a benign security assignment and then reassigned for a more physical or confrontational job." Written job descriptions that define the scope of duties can reduce that risk, he adds.

Making a List, Checking It ...

Hiring workers for the holidays doesn’t mean taking a holiday from conducting thorough background screenings.

Seasonal workers present the same risks as full-time employees, notes Matthew Keiser, an attorney at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C. Risks include theft, assault and other inappropriate conduct that could lead to a negligent hiring lawsuit against the employer.

If a company routinely conducts background checks for full-time employees, don’t let seasonal workers "slip through the cracks," Keiser warns. "You don’t want a holiday employee becoming a full-time employee without a background check."

Standards for seasonal workers should be just as high as those for full-time workers, says David Levenberg, senior vice president at Andrews International, a provider of security services in Valencia, Calif. "We don’t lower the standards for the holiday. They are from the beginning qualified to be full-time. We don’t look at holiday help as second-tier citizens."

While seasonal security guards typically do not carry weapons, as some full-time guards do, "They have to be able to perform at the same level. We still put them through mall-based training," Levenberg says, adding that many temporary guards end up being full-time employees.

A typical security guard job generally is considered entry-level "and as such doesn’t pay very well or offer a lucrative career path," explains McGoey,who calls it challenging to find applicants with education, training and experience. Typical applicants, he says, are students, immigrants, transitional workers and retirees.

"Because of this, security work suffers from high turnover as guards frequently change employers," he says. "Companies often will cherry-pick the best seasonal security workers for full-time jobs at the end of the season. This potential is what security applicants hope for and will cause them to accept lower seasonal pay."

The author is editor of Staffing Management magazine, author of Next-Generation Wellness at Work (Praeger Publishing, 2009) and a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.​

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