Holiday jobs come with uncertainty for workers

Career Fair Held For Job Seekers

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Job seekers hand out resumes to a recruiter during the San Francisco Hire Event job fair on November 9, 2011 in San Francisco, California.

Retailers across the country expect to hire hundreds of thousands of extra workers this holiday season to help with the anticipated spike in sales. Retail workers who have been hustling year-round for more hours are looking at that news with a jaded eye — because the vast majority of these seasonal jobs will disappear after December, sending many of these workers back scrounging for more work.

With a 17-hour workweek, Onieka O'Kieffe is left with a lot of time on her hands. Too much time. She said she very often sleeps 12 hours a day just because she can.

"That's typically the case. Like, if there's nothing else to do," O'Kieffe said. "Because I'm mostly at home anyway."

O'Kieffe, 22, is a part-time manager at a hardware store in the Bronx called Harbor Freight Tools. She makes $10 an hour. When the store cut her hours weeks ago, she started making less than her little sister, who's a cashier at Burger King earning $7.25 an hour.

So O'Kieffe will be joining the estimated 600,000 retail workers grabbing up holiday jobs this year to supplement their incomes.

She said she has no choice — she and her sister live with their mother, who's on public assistance and doesn't work. And O'Kieffe said she's has $4,000 of credit card debt.

But scraping up a seasonal retail job isn't easy. O'Kieffe hit the streets of Midtown Manhattan this week to hunt down some work, darting in and out of Foot Locker, Sephora, Lush, Mango, Bebe, Aldo and Fossil. In store after store, she filled out job applications, dropped off her resume and picked up fliers for job events the stores were hosting. Repeatedly, clerks told her only part-time work was available, and no one promised a minimum number of hours.

Some of the biggest stores in the country have announced they're hiring more holiday workers this year than last — stores like Macy's, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart. But these jobs will be fleeting. And that's the catch for year-round retail workers who can never find enough work.

"So they can go from a 35-hour workweek in December to a five-hour workweek in January, and then see the company lay them off and then hire a whole new workforce in February for Valentine's Day," said Carrie Gleason, who heads Retail Action Project, a worker advocacy group.

U.S. Census data show the percentage of part-time retail workers who want to be full-time has doubled since 2006. And the hours aren't only scarce; they're unpredictable.

"You might get 15 hours, but you don't know what days they're going to be," said Susan Lambert, who studies low-wage labor at the University of Chicago. "And so that might require you, for example, if you're a parent, to have to arrange child care for five days a week — even though, really, you only end up working three days a week."

But retailers say it's not their fault if hiring is unpredictable, because the entire economy is unpredictable. And the holiday season means taking on even more risk than usual.

"Everything about the holiday season for retailers is a guessing game," said Ellen Davis of the National Retail Federation, a retail trade association. "How many people should I hire? What should my marketing and promotions be like? How much merchandise should I bring into my stores? And which stores should get more merchandise than others?"

Davis said retailers start making their seasonal hiring decisions in August or September. The dilemma for them, she explained, is that if they hire too few people, customers get annoyed. If they hire too many, they're saddled with high labor costs they can't justify with sales.

And the people caught in the middle are workers like O'Kieffe, who just need more hours.

"It sucks that those are the jobs being offered — like I'm only good enough for three months and then, like, that's it. I'm out with nothing," she said.

O'Kieffe dropped out of college because she needed a job to pay for two more years. She said she now has to pay back about $10,000 in student loans for the years she's already finished. So at this point, she has no idea if she'll ever get to go back to school.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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