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A tight job market is in store for holidays

October 14, 2008|Andrea Chang | Times Staff Writer

With Christmas fast approaching, Molly Oswaks has checked out stores in the Grove shopping center, boutiques in Larchmont Village and shops along 3rd Street. All across Southern California and the country, the search is on -- not for the perfect gift but for holiday jobs.

And the news isn't good with financial uncertainty in the air.

A sophomore at New York University from Hancock Park, Oswaks took this semester off and started looking for job openings in September. She figured holiday work would net her some extra cash and bolster her resume without interfering with school, which she returns to in January. But no luck so far.

"I've been, for the past month, going into store after store, and no one's hiring," Oswaks, 19, said. "It's really difficult."

Every year, department stores, specialty shops and other retailers hire extra employees for the holidays. Besides helping shoppers look for gifts, seasonal workers ring up purchases, hang store decorations and restock merchandise.

But this will be no ordinary holiday season. Fearing a bleak Christmas, retailers are slashing prices, extending store hours and yes, scaling back on holiday hires.

At a Guess store in Pasadena, managers are planning to hire 10 to 15 holiday employees this year, about 25% fewer than last year, co-manager Eric Varela said.

"We start panicking when we know we're not making the money we're supposed to be making," Varela, 29, said. "It's like a roller-coaster ride here. We really don't know what to expect."

Wonhee Lee, owner of Mobius, a designer clothing and toy shop in Koreatown, said he might not hire any holiday workers if business doesn't improve. Last year he added three part-time workers during the holidays.

"This year we'll probably just keep what we have now unless things pick up in November, but I kind of doubt it," Lee, 36, said. "Our goal is just to stay afloat this year and to cut down on costs as much as possible. And that includes workers."

A recent survey of more than 1,000 managers responsible for hiring hourly workers found that each manager planned on hiring an average of 3.7 seasonal employees this year, roughly 33% less than the 5.6 workers they hired during last year's holiday period.

And 57% said they didn't plan on making any seasonal hires this year, an increase of 8 percentage points from 2007, according to the survey by, a website for hourly jobs. Respondents cited smaller budgets and fewer expected holiday shoppers as reasons for cutting back; many said current employees would assume the additional workload instead.

Those looking for seasonal positions should be prepared to face stiff competition: There will be fewer jobs to go around, but more people are expected to be vying for them.

"People need to get out soon instead of doing it last minute," advised Ricardo Esqueda, store manager at the Banana Republic in the Beverly Center, which began hiring for the holidays in September. The store will reduce its number of holiday employees this year by about 10%, he said.

"The economy affects everything," Esqueda said. "At this point we're just hiring less people and being more selective."

Students, stay-at-home parents, retirees and workers looking to take on a second job are common applicants for holiday positions.

But this year, "you've just got a lot of people who are out of work who need something to help with their household expenses," said Shawn Boyer, chief executive of, which surveyed hiring managers in sectors such as retail, restaurants and customer service.

Faced with an uncertain economy and higher costs of living, Ashley Masterton, 20, is applying for a holiday job to help make ends meet.

"I'm just barely cutting it. On my debit card yesterday, I had five dollars and 62 cents. Today I get paid," said Masterton, a student at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. "It's paycheck to paycheck, literally."

But she knows it won't be easy. She already has a job working at an Urban Outfitters in Los Angeles and has seen foot traffic dwindle recently as consumers spend less.

"Because of where the whole economic situation is right now, we're way behind. It's a little nerve-racking," she said. If retailers "are not making enough money, they won't hire."

Last year there were 618,000 holiday hires in the retail sector in November and December, according to the National Retail Federation. But that number is likely to be significantly lower this year, said Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations with the group.

He predicted that holiday hiring numbers would drop to 2001 levels, when consumers reined in their spending after 9/11. Retailers made just 402,500 holiday hires that year.

"When you're anticipating a tough market, you're going to be careful not to overcommit on staffing," Butler said. "They always have the ability to hire more if the sales trend justifies additional staff."

Even stores that are keeping their holiday hiring numbers the same as last year are looking to save.

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