Pandemic scrambles seasonal hiring patterns

Tamekia Bell works on a job application at her home in Smyrna on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. She has temporary seasonal work but is hoping to land a permanent job. Despite five consecutive months of growth, Georgia has 366,000 fewer people employed than before the pandemic. Seasonal work may often be low-paid and temporary, but with virus-related unemployment benefits expiring, a lot of people may be willing to take what they can find. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Tamekia Bell works on a job application at her home in Smyrna on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. She has temporary seasonal work but is hoping to land a permanent job. Despite five consecutive months of growth, Georgia has 366,000 fewer people employed than before the pandemic. Seasonal work may often be low-paid and temporary, but with virus-related unemployment benefits expiring, a lot of people may be willing to take what they can find. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Temporary end-of-year jobs may provide smaller boost in 2020

For Tamekia Bell, a temporary seasonal job is a bridge.

From a chaotic year of pandemic-induced unemployment, mounting bills and uncertainty to a permanent job she’s interviewed for and hopes to land in the new year as an accountant.

Meanwhile, she’s on a 60-hour project for a local nonprofit. “They’ve got to straighten out their finances before the end of the year. They have to close out 2020.”

Good thing for her, said Bell, 39. “I am behind again on my expenses. I really need this job.”

Temporary seasonal jobs — typically added from October to Christmas — are often key to the economy’s trajectory. A good holiday season can rescue a slow year — and this year surely needs rescuing.

Despite five consecutive months of growth, Georgia has 366,000 fewer people employed than before the pandemic. Seasonal work may often be low-paid and short term, but with coronavirus-related unemployment benefits expiring, a lot of people may be willing to take what they can find.

While it’s too early to be certain, the pickings may be slimmer than usual.

Companies that handle online orders are bulking up, but traditional stores are struggling as consumers venture out less ahead of the holiday shopping season. Many businesses have delayed hiring plans, unsure about demand for their goods and services.

Hiring depends on spending. But with so many households hurt by layoffs, overall spending could be muted, said Rebecca Lessem, associate professor of economics at Carnegie-Mellon University. If there is a surge, some businesses may just add hours for workers they already have.

“There will be a bump in hiring, but my strong hunch is that there will be fewer jobs than in the past,” Lessem predicted.

Last year’s final three months accounted for 51,900 of the state’s new jobs — 82% of 2019′s growth, according to data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

Tamekia Bell, who currently has has a temporary seasonal job, works at home in Smyrna on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Tamekia Bell, who currently has has a temporary seasonal job, works at home in Smyrna on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

For some businesses, late 2020 is starting to look like the holiday season last year.

“Companies are hiring and that’s a good sign,” said Ryan Hansen, metro market manager for Robert Half, an international staffing firm.

Sandy Springs-based shipping giant UPS said in September that it planned to hire 100,000 seasonal workers, including about 7,000 in Georgia. In September, e-commerce giant Amazon said it would add more than 4,000 jobs in metro Atlanta.

But dollar-for-dollar, online spending just doesn’t support as many jobs as in-store shopping, said economist Lessem.

Moreover, seasonal hiring got a slow start, according to Mathieu Stevenson, chief executive officer of Snagajob, an online platform used to place tens of millions of people annually. “We are seeing a four- to six-week delay in hiring.”

Businesses are always uncertain about how much of a seasonal bump to expect. And, with tens of millions of people losing jobs and health experts urging consumers to avoid large groups, the fog of the future has been thicker than ever.

Open jobs in warehousing in metro Atlanta are up nearly 400% from pre-pandemic levels, while overall postings have started rising at a 8%-a-week clip, Stevenson said. But the Snagajob web site lists 33,000 jobs in metro Atlanta, still about 14% lower than before the pandemic.

Current postings are not generally for stereotypical holiday positions — like the clerk behind the counter helping to handle a department store’s pre-Christmas crush. But that was never the whole story. Some companies have managers with budgets they must spend or lose by Dec. 31, others have end-of-the-year deadlines for projects.

Many seasonal jobs are filled by students on break. Millions more are done by people who are already employed: Early this year, more than 8 million Americans were working more than one job.

Seasonal jobs for many fill a financial need, whether it’s helping to pay holiday expenses or unexpected medical costs.

Sabree Alston, 23, has a full-time job for a large tech company, but she worked a nightly shift at Samaritan’s Purse last year and plans to be back when they open this month. “The extra work makes the holidays better.”

She packs boxes of gifts for children overseas who would not otherwise have a Christmas celebration. The work gives her joy, she said, although her extra paycheck is targeted for a charity closer to home.

“My grandma is a cancer patient,” Alston said. “This year, that’s where the money goes.”

Tamekia Bell prepares for her application for a permanent job while also working a temporary seasonal job at home in Smyrna on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Tamekia Bell prepares for her application for a permanent job while also working a temporary seasonal job at home in Smyrna on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Since the Great Recession, the fourth quarter has averaged 86,000 jobs in Georgia, more than 70% of the jobs added. A similar performance this year still would leave the economy far from its pre-pandemic levels.

Most higher-income families have been spared the worst of the economic pain. And there’s hope that families might avoid large gatherings and compensate with more spending — which means more hiring.

Retail still accounts for much of the seasonal hiring. But it is mostly positions along the e-commerce supply chain in warehouses, transportation and delivery, and customer call centers, said Kim Wallace, executive vice president of Duluth-based Hire Dynamics, which staffs thousands of mainly blue-collar jobs.

Jobs have grown at home improvement chains like Vinings-based Home Depot, grocery chains like Kroger and Publix as well as big box retailers like Walmart and Target.

Some small retailers are focusing more on niche offerings that can also be delivered.

Edible Arrangements, which has 38 stores in Georgia, is adding up to 10 positions per store through the next several months, including bakers, stock workers and drivers, said Cheikh Mboup, company president.

The stores sell and deliver various deserts, including the current “Go to the movies at home” promotion of boxed-up popcorn and other goodies. Gifts of food, Mboup argued, are “emotional currency” that will only be more valuable to people who cannot get together with loved ones.

“It will be OK to send something to your grandma that you can’t see, something that she can enjoy and indulge in,” he said.

The holiday surge in Georgia jobs

Fourth-quarter hiring as share of total hiring

2011: 66.7%

2012: 73.5%

2013: 63.4%

2014: 50.0%

2015: 65.4%

2016: 57.9%

2017: 99.0%

2018: 64.4%

2019: 82.1%

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, St. Louis Federal Reserve, staff research

________________________

Slow start, but sectors not all the same

(Compared to last year)

Overall U.S. retail and seasonal job openings: down 8%

Sports, hobby and book store job openings: up 22%

Clothing store job openings: down 39%

Overall openings in Georgia: down 4.1%

Overall openings in metro Atlanta: down 8.2%

Source: Glassdoor

____________________________

Atlanta job openings, hot and not

(compared to previous month)

Convenience stores: up 4%

Grocery stores: down 17%

Healthcare: up 2%

Hospitality: up 12%

Warehouses: up 532%

On call gig work: down 55%

Restaurants: down 2%

Quick service restaurants: up 6%

Retail: up 37%

Source: Snagajob

In Other News