Help (Desperately) Wanted

With the holiday season in full swing, employers are encountering a hard reality: a workforce reluctant to return to work.
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Jason Beck is tired. Since the spring, he’s been working six days a week, and with the holidays here, he’s putting in longer hours, under tougher conditions. As a divisional manager for a group of luxury stores, one in Garden State Plaza, he’s a victim of what many are calling the hiring crisis. Simply put, there aren’t enough people looking for jobs to fill the positions that currently need to be filled. That means that Beck has to step in when there are holes in his sales force—and lately, there are always holes in his sales force.

Like almost everyone who works for a retail chain or a franchise, Beck is contractually prevented from speaking to the press, which is why we can’t name the store he works for, and why we’ve agreed to change his name in this article. Even if this proscription weren’t in place, though, it’s unlikely that brick-and-mortar retailers—already reeling from the effects of the pandemic—would want to advertise the fact that, in the year’s busiest shopping season, customers are apt to encounter longer lines, and fewer experienced salespeople, than in previous years.

“Bergen County employers are struggling to recruit workers, despite high levels of unemployment,” notes Lynda Wolf, director of the Bergen County Job Center (BCJC). That’s especially true, she says, among hourly, entry-level and mid-level nonmanagerial positions, particularly in the sectors of manufacturing, hospitality, food service, retail sales and health care. A November walk through Mitsuwa Marketplace, the 45,000-square-foot Japanese mall in Edgewater, revealed “hiring” signs at virtually every kiosk, and a manager at a Bergen County Panera Bread told us that hiring “is one of our biggest difficulties.” Similarly, a manager at one of Bergen County’s four Target stores noted that “it’s happening here, and everywhere.” “I don’t care what area you’re in,” says Carol Rauscher, president of the North Jersey Chamber of Commerce (representing nine Bergen municipalities, including Englewood and Fort Lee), “whether it’s a grocery store, a restaurant or a clothing store, hiring today is very, very difficult.”

Municipalities, too, are having trouble finding seasonal and permanent workers. In early November, the Borough of Glen Rock posted a notice on the online help-wanted site ZipRecruiter emphasizing that it was “urgently hiring” workers through the fall and winter to clear snow and leaf litter. At the same time, the Village of Ridgewood issued an alert on The Ridgewood Blog that it was experiencing “unprecedented difficulty in hiring crossing guards for this school year” and was working “diligently on hiring more.” Many towns, including Ridgewood and Wyckoff, are facing a severe shortage of school bus drivers; in Ridgewood, the shortage, which was beginning to be felt last spring, actually delayed the town’s return to in-house classes until this fall, and the situation is still dire.

Connor Shaw represents the United Service Workers of America, a union of school and paratransit bus drivers (who convey people in wheelchairs) in the tristate area. He notes that Englewood, for instance, which needs 120 school bus drivers to be at full capacity, is currently down to 90, and that Elmwood Park’s paratransit drivers are only at 75 percent of capacity. In fact, he says, “all of our yards could use 25 percent more drivers.”

The Fears Continue

The pandemic, of course, is a major precipitating factor in the current labor shortage. Federal unemployment benefits, which kept many people afloat after much of the world—including the job market—shut down in spring of 2020, also kept people from rushing back into the market when businesses reopened in June of that year. Still, says Wolf, “we had expected to encounter a post-pandemic hiring rush after the additional federal unemployment benefit ended on Sept. 4, but it never materialized.” Some worker hesitancy can be blamed on COVID fears, which didn’t abate when the economy started opening up. That was, and continues to be, especially true in sectors that involve interacting with the public, such as hospitality, healthcare and retail. And because so many of those working in hospitality and retail were laid off at the start of the pandemic, workers in those industries felt frighteningly disposable. “They’re afraid to come back,” says Beck, “because they feel a lack of stability.”

In other industries, many workers simply made a transition from in-person work to work-from-home, and a lot of them found that they liked the flexibility it offered—especially if they had young children at home. Only two other states had a greater percentage of remote workers than New Jersey, which experienced an increase of 1,253 percent in telecommuters from 2019 to 2020. Those satisfied telecommuters not only enjoyed their newfound freedom, but were also able to save money they would otherwise have spent on commuting, eating out, etc. A large percentage of them have decided not to return to their old jobs now that they’re being asked to come back to an office, and some of them are currently living on their savings while they decide where they might like to work in the future—part of a new social movement being dubbed the Great Resignation.

There’s also a catch-22 at play—or, as Shaw calls it, “a snake-eating-its-tail problem:” Current workers, he says, “are doing so much forced overtime to try to cover shifts that they’re burning out and leaving”—which only adds to the hiring crisis. “That’s another piece of the puzzle,” says Beck. “We’re working with many fewer workers than in the past but expecting the same results, so everyone has to work much harder. I think that’s another reason people are shying away from retail.”

In such a competitive job market, it’s not surprising that employers are offering higher wages and even hiring bonuses. “Because it’s so competitive now,” says Beck, “the wages we have to pay people are astronomically higher than what we paid a year ago.” But when everyone else has raised their wages in turn, that tactic doesn’t always yield magical results. Beck notes that many of the people who apply for jobs at his stores aren’t qualified for them. And those who are may be looking elsewhere—specifically, to Amazon, which—desperate for holiday workers—is offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000 for some jobs and starting wages of up to $22.50 an hour. Working in an Amazon warehouse may not constitute anyone’s idea of a dream job, but for many it’s a significant improvement over, say, busing dishes.

Filling Those Jobs

For many Bergen businesses, success this holiday season may hinge on their ability to hire—and hiring will likely remain a challenge long after the evergreen swags and twinkling lights have been packed away for another year. The BCJC is doing its share to help employers in a bind. In September it hosted a county-wide, week-long recruitment event, and it’s held a number of virtual job fairs and information sessions, as well as partnering, in November, with Garden State Plaza on a two-day, in-person job fair, which Lisa Herrmann, the mall’s senior director of marketing, describes as “part of an ongoing program introduced to support retailers’ hiring efforts.”

It’s clear that employers will have to up their game in this strange, new job market. If they’re not looking beyond their home turf for workers, says Rauscher, they’ll have to start doing that ASAP. Many workers in Bergen County restaurants, she notes, live not in Bergen but in nearby Hudson County, where the cost of living is lower overall.

Wolf also suggests that employers make quick decisions about new hires. “There’s a war on to find the best talent,” she says with emphasis, “and those who snooze will lose.” In addition, she recommends offering incentives to fill lower-wage positions, such as raising wages higher than competitors’ and paying signing, referral and retention bonuses. Other tactics: “upskilling” current staff to fill open positions and cultivating relationships with local high schools, trade schools and universities to create internship and apprenticeship opportunities. Employers can also apply for On-the-Job Training, a federally funded hiring incentive enacted in 2014 legislation and designed to assist unemployed workers seeking full-time employment. “If a company hires an eligible recipient and agrees to train that person,” she says, “it could receive reimbursement up to 50 percent of gross wages.”

For many employers, this new approach to hiring can feel like an alien landscape. In the same way that the pandemic upended life as we know it, the hiring crisis has utterly transformed the labor market, and at the moment no one knows how long either event is likely to continue. Rauscher, for one, is guardedly optimistic. “I think as time goes on,” she says, “things will return to something approaching normal.” On the other hand, all those workers reaping the benefits of a radically altered labor market have every reason to hope the hiring crisis continues unabated. But whether you embrace the change or fear it, it seems fairly certain that it will linger on long after the holidays are a pleasant—or, for some, a not-so-pleasant—memory.

By Leslie Garisto Pfaf

Categories: Bergen Health & Life, Homepage Features