For Holiday Hires, It's Already Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

By Jennifer Smith Features Dow Jones Newswires

Shoppers like to complain that holiday decorations appear earlier and earlier. This year, so are the job ads.

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The holiday hiring binge is accelerating for retailers such as Target Corp. and Macy's Inc., which hire thousands of workers to process surging online orders. E-commerce sites double or even quadruple their warehouse staff. Online giant Amazon.com Inc. adds to the hiring frenzy, as do logistics companies and package-delivery services like United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. Some firms posted their first holiday job listings as early as July.

But with unemployment at near-record lows, employers are going the extra mile to ensure they have enough workers come December. Companies are bumping up pay, loosening disciplinary policies and even operating bus routes.

"It's the tightest labor market we've ever seen," said Sean McCartney, executive vice president of operation services at Radial, which handles online orders for e-commerce companies and national chains such as Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. and Aéropostale Inc.

Some big retailers are doing the bulk of their hiring in warehouses that handle online orders, a sign they expect more shoppers to visit their websites instead of stores. Last year, online retail sales jumped 12.6% in November and December, compared with a 7% decline at department stores, according to the National Retail Federation.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to bring on about 5,000 seasonal workers for its e-commerce operations. The discounter isn't hiring extra help at its stores, where it plans to give existing employees more hours.

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Macy's plans to add 18,000 seasonal workers at distribution centers that replenish store merchandise and fulfill online orders -- a 20% boost compared with last year. Overall seasonal hiring is down slightly at the retailer, which closed dozens of stores after disappointing sales in 2016.

Radial is bringing on 27,000-plus seasonal workers, 35% more than last year. The company began advertising for some jobs in July, about a month earlier than usual. It's offering more flexible schedules, including shorter shifts that allow working parents to clock in between school drop-off and pickup.

Radial is also planning to provide bus service for employees in some rural locations, such as central Kentucky, and in some "hypercompetitive" East Coast markets, Mr. McCartney said.

XPO Logistics Inc., whose e-commerce clients include Inditex SA's Zara, plans to add 6,000 seasonal workers, up 20% from last year.

Companies are racing to open up warehouses within easy reach of millions of consumers who expect to get e-commerce orders in two days or less. This year Amazon alone announced plans for more than two dozen new U.S. fulfillment centers.

Amazon's arrival can shake up local warehouse labor markets because the retailer often pays better than rivals, offering between $11 to $14 an hour for full-time warehouse workers, depending on the location.

In Cranbury Township, a New Jersey town near Interstate 95, help-wanted ads for warehouse workers are posted along roadsides and at local businesses. Amazon is opening a 900,000-square-foot fulfillment center there, joining nearby facilities serving Wayfair.com, Home Depot Inc., Petco Animal Supplies Inc. and Crate and Barrel, among others. "It's your time, Cranbury, NJ," reads one Amazon flier.

"There's a lot of warehouses here.... There's a lot of trucks," said Paul Corneetz, 70 years old, who lives in neighboring Monroe Township. "Even ads on the turnpike for distribution centers."

Amazon hasn't announced its seasonal hiring plans. Last month, the company held a nationwide job fair to fill 50,000 positions, mostly at fulfillment centers.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that the nationwide hire day coincided with the extreme front-end of peak-season hiring," said Doug Hammond, president of in-house services for Randstad US, a subsidiary of Dutch recruiting firm Randstad Holding NV. "They want to secure that labor."

This year average pay for entry-level warehouse workers is expected to hit $13.68 an hour during peak season, up 10% compared with nonpeak wages and a nearly 5% increase from 2016, according to logistics staffing firm ProLogistix.

UPS began recruiting a few weeks earlier than usual and is providing bus service for seasonal workers in markets such as Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and Louisville, Ky., where labor competition is particularly tight, said Paul Tanguay, the company's global director of recruitment strategies.

The company plans to add 95,000 seasonal workers, about the same level as the previous two years, for positions from package handlers and delivery helpers to drivers who run big-rigs loaded with packages from one facility to another. FedEx expects to hire more than 50,000 for the peak, close to last year's total.

UPS has also been adding automated equipment and opening up new facilities aimed at handling both holiday surges and the growing volume of e-commerce packages outside of peak season.

Parcel carriers and courier firms that deliver online purchases to consumers' doorsteps have been ramping up hiring since the spring. The number of people employed in the sector rose 31,000 over the past year, according to Labor Department data for August. Warehouse hiring is also at near-record levels, accounting for 951,000 jobs in August

Some employers are relaxing screening or disciplinary policies as workers become harder to find. Companies might rehire employees who were dismissed for minor infractions, or give a second chance to employees who miss shifts, said Brian Devine, senior vice president at ProLogistix.

Kenco Logistics, a third-party logistics provider based in Chattanooga, Tenn., whose customers include industrial, consumer goods and e-commerce clients, is considering various "second-strike" options to reduce turnover.

"Our number one reason for losing people is they can't show up for work on time every day," said David Caines, the company's chief operating officer.

But leniency has its limits, even during the holiday rush. "You don't want to cross a line and be so lax that things get out of control," Mr. Caines said.

--Suzanne Kapner contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 20, 2017 14:03 ET (18:03 GMT)