Holiday jobs ‘closer to normal’

Cautiously optimistic Clark County retailers expected to hire about 900 seasonal workers

By

Published:

 

Clark County store-only retail sales

October through December

Year Sales

2010 $524.6 million

2009 $494.1 million

2008 $497.2 million

2007 $561.8 million

2006 $562.7 million

Source: Washington State Department of Revenue

Clark County store-only retail sales

October through December

Year Sales

2010 $524.6 million

2009 $494.1 million

2008 $497.2 million

2007 $561.8 million

2006 $562.7 million

Source: Washington State Department of Revenue

The best thing we can say about holiday retail hiring this year in Clark County is at least it’s not 2008.

Compared with that year, county stores are expected to add about 200 percent more temporary workers, translating to 900 hires from October through December, according to the state Employment Security Department. This year stores are hiring as they anticipate a slight uptick in seasonal sales. By contrast in 2008, local stores only added about 300 short-term holiday jobs, just as the global recession was beginning its downward descent.

“That was the disaster year,” said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the department.

But this year’s holiday hiring spree isn’t exactly a sign of recovery, according to Bailey, who said retail hiring looks more like a step back to square one. The season’s 900 temporary retail job numbers are on par with 2006, and 2010, Bailey said.

“It’s a little closer to normal,” he said. “Retail (hiring) is basically flat.”

Merchants, however, see the addition of staff as a sign of cautious optimism. National retailers Macy’s and Kohl’s have said they’ve added between 4 percent and 5 percent more hires this year because their businesses have grown.

Holiday sales nationwide are expected to bump up 2.8 percent this year. But most retailers want to see a bigger increase before they’re ready to beef up store staffing, said Jan Teague, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Retail Association in Olympia.

“It’s flat, but at the same time we are cautiously optimistic,” Teague said. “As those projections increase, the store will hire accordingly,” she said, adding that retailers are always looking for the best way to balance the expense of personnel with satisfying consumer demand.

“Customers are always sensitive to the amount of time that they wait in line,” Teague said.

Hiring temporary workers allows companies to satisfy customers without adding a permanent expense to the bottom line, according to 24/7 Wall St., an online financial news publication. Retailers in November added nearly 50,000 more jobs across the nation, up 226,000 from the same month in 2010, according to seasonally adjusted numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The level of hiring in November, this year and last, represents substantial improvement compared to 2009 and 2008, the worst holiday-hiring season in 22 years, according to the Wall Street Journal.

And while they don’t have all the advantages that typically come with permanent employment, many of Clark County’s temporary retail workers can at least count on fringe benefits, such as employee discounts on store merchandise, along with a few weeks of pay.

“We always keep our holiday hires on through January,” to help take care of customers redeeming gift cards, spending holiday cash and making exchanges, said Deanna Hansen, store manager of the J.C. Penney at Westfield Vancouver mall.

The store hired 40 additional employees to cover the holiday season this year. The company’s east Vancouver site hired 50 seasonal workers.

“It’s very, very common for seasonal hires to end up staying,” said Melinda Merrill, a spokeswoman for Portland-based Fred Meyer, owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.

She said Clark County’s eight Fred Meyer stores added between six and 12 new hires per store in a holiday season ramp-up completed in late October. Merrill said the company typically pays new employees an hourly wage that is 10 cents above Washington state’s minimum wage of $8.67 per hour.

“All employees, whether seasonal or not, are eligible for (health care) benefits after six months,” she said.

Business services up

Although retail hiring has been flat so far this year, the business services sector actually added jobs this year. The category includes temp agencies, which sometimes experience an increase in hiring to supplement the retail industry, said Eric Schubert, franchise owner of Express Employment Professionals, a temp agency that serves Vancouver employers.

“We have some retail clients that call us between September and December for customer services and merchandise assembly,” Schubert said.

Express Employment has hired 232 more temporary workers this year compared with last year, Schubert said.

“This has been a record year,” he said.

But Bailey said Clark County employers have only added 800 jobs across other sectors from October 2010 to October 2011, bumping September’s jobless rate slightly down to 11.4 percent.

He does not expect to see retailers add permanent positions until store sales improve dramatically. The outcome of retail profits this year rests largely on the return of confidence among skittish consumers who worry about everything from the safety of their own jobs to the debt crisis in Europe, Bailey said.

“They’re worried, they’re strapped, and we are all irrational shoppers,” Bailey said. “But the real deal is in sales. That’s what’s important to the retailers.”