Jobless hope to be store's holiday helpers

Seasonal positions are priceless in a recession, but pickings will be slim

One man, 56, had lost his home to the bank and, a few weeks later, his car to the repo man.

A 28-year-old woman with three kids was applying for the retail job to grow beyond her experience as a security guard.

Another woman said she was homeless and gave the phone number of a friend at her temple as her contact information.

Each was desperate for work — but optimistic as they attended a job fair at the Georgia Department of Labor center on Druid Hills Road.

Holiday hiring has long been a source of extra cash for students and parents, and in good times the jobs can be easy to get. This year, amid what many experts are calling a jobless recovery from the Great Recession, that’s not the case.

Many services and retailers — especially boutique and mom-and-pop stores — are not hiring as many holiday workers as in years past, and the applicant pool is deeper.

On the day of the DeKalb job fair, 107 people applied for temporary jobs stocking shelves and running cash registers at one Toys “R” Us store in Buckhead.

“We’re looking for hardworking, reliable employees who want to help shoppers find the perfect gift for the special child in their lives,” said Jennifer Albano, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey-based chain.

She said the company plans to hire about 35,000 seasonal employees nationwide, an average of 41 per store. It’s the same number of temporary workers the company has hired for the past two years, she said.

Roughly a half-million Georgians are jobless and looking for work, outnumbering openings more than six to one, according to the state.

“Many employers are just afraid to hire now,” Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said. “They are risk-averse.”

The National Retail Federation predicts holiday spending nationwide will decline 1 percent from last year, to $437.6 billion.

Sandy Springs-based UPS, a bellwether of retail and general economic activity, said it needs fewer helpers than in past years. The company said it will add about 50,000 holiday employees nationwide — including 1,300 in Georgia — compared with 60,000 in 2007. UPS didn’t disclose how many it hired last year.

The jobs pay $8.50 per hour and require some heavy lifting, UPS spokeswoman Karen Cole said.

“In some areas we’ve been overwhelmed with applications, so we can be a little more selective this year,” she said. There has been about a 20 percent increase in applications, she said.

Several local chains in Atlanta said they’ll hire fewer holiday workers, while some national chains said hiring will be flat. Macy’s, for example, said it will hire about the same number as it has the past few years. Kohl’s said it is hiring 20 seasonal workers per store, or about 21,000 nationwide.

“Holiday hiring might improve slightly over last year, but only because 2008 saw the lowest seasonal employment growth in nearly 20 years,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“With millions of Americans out of work and many more simply cutting back on all discretionary spending, few retailers will take the risk of eating into slim profits with extra workers.”

Last year, retail employment grew by just 384,300 from October through December, according to nonseasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was nearly 50 percent fewer than in 2007, when retailers added 720,800 workers during the holiday months.

Economic forecaster Rajeev Dhawan, of Georgia State University, said temporary jobs “will make a difference and help anybody who is in dire straits.” But he added the money holiday workers make won’t be as readily recycled into the economy as in better times.

“They will also be a little bit more cautious about spending that money because they know the job is temporary,” he said.

Despite the Toys “R” Us applicants’ optimism, none was hired by the chain after the job fair.

“I never got a call back,” said Chevion Taylor, a 21-year-old new mother who lives in Decatur. “It was a waste of time. I don’t know what they were looking for. I am still job searching.”

Some landed other jobs, though. The man who lost his home, Frankie Williams Jr. of Dunwoody, got a job shining floors at Emory University at $10 per hour. He said he’ll need another part-time job to make ends meet. He’ll get to the Emory job by bus and train.

The former security guard, Tiffany Edwards of Decatur, got another job in security.

Her shift? Midnight to 6 a.m., which she likes because it means she can see her children before they go to school, nap during the day, then be with them after school.

But initially there was a hitch: She couldn’t afford the $130 to buy the uniform and shoes. She also had to pay her light bill.

Help came from Welcome Friends Baptist Church of Decatur.

“My church came together that Sunday and got a donation for me,” Edwards said. “I wasn’t expecting it. I got my uniform and started working that Monday. I haven’t had a job for over a year. I am just happy to have a job.”

Staff reporter Michael Kanell contributed to this report.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.