Temporary Work For The Holiday Season

With more than 15 million Americans still unemployed, companies have had little trouble finding temporary workers for the holiday season. In fact, hiring temps is becoming more and more common in all workplaces, all year round. Today, we get to know a few of those temps who are helping make our holidays brighter. First, NPR's Wendy Kaufman sets out to find those real-life elves who ship Christmas presents; WSHU's Craig Lemoult visits Nodine's Smokehouse in Torrington, Conn., where workers are smoking hams, bacon, duck, venison and beef jerky; and NPR's Wade Goodwyn visits the Lionel train exhibition in Dallas.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This time of year, mail trucks are stuffed with packages. Restaurants are busy preparing special foods. Toy stores are packed with shoppers. Operations like those require temp workers for the holidays. More than 15 million Americans are still unemployed, so companies have little trouble finding temps. In fact, since the economic downturn, hiring temps has become more common year-round.

Today, we have three stories about temp workers who are helping to make our holidays brighter. First, NPR's Wendy Kaufman set out to find those real-life elves who ship presents.

(Soundbite of machinery)

WENDY KAUFMAN: Brennan Sanderson, clad in a T-shirt and baseball cap, has the rhythms of his job down perfectly. He's one of more than a hundred temporary workers at an Amazon.com distribution center in suburban Seattle.

Mr. BRENNAN SANDERSON (Temporary Worker): We do a lot of packages a day. We do a few hours at a time, you know, sitting here at a station and just kind of keep the flow going; as the pickers pick, we pack, and as we pack, the shippers ship and then the process just continues on.

KAUFMAN: Right now, he's at a packing station, grabbing items out of bins and readying them for shipping.

Mr. SANDERSON: And these are single orders, so these are single units that go in a box.

KAUFMAN: So that's a Wii you got there.

Mr. SANDERSON: It is. Any item that goes in the package, we use bubbles to secure them.

KAUFMAN: He gives the box a quick shake to make sure it's packed tightly.

(Soundbite of box shaking)

KAUFMAN: Sanderson, who's 23, used to work at an office furniture company. But business was slow and after two-and-a-half years there, he was let go. He collected unemployment benefits for several months. And then a friend suggested he get a job with the online retailing giant. He gets $11.10 an hour. The work is fast-paced and often repetitive, but he likes it. He's especially fond of his coworkers and their fun-loving attitude.

Mr. SANDERSON: A song comes on and all of a sudden you notice four people start singing it, you know, at different parts of the warehouse. You can just hear them singing.

KAUFMAN: Favorite song?

Mr. SANDERSON: I don't know the name of the song, but I know at the beginning of it you can always hear it come on the radio because it's like hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SANDERSON: Hey, hey, hey, hey.

(Soundbite of music)

KAUFMAN: Employees here have packaging and shipping targets and quotas they're expected to meet, and the pressure, especially in the shipping department, can be pretty intense. But Jayrine Homopher - another temporary worker - says she doesn't mind.

Ms. JAYRINE HOMOPHER (Temporary Worker): It's fun, you know, especially when there's a time limit for us to get out the packages on time. And there's actually two people on the line, and you're like competing with each other.

KAUFMAN: The competition is about more than just packages. She and many others are essentially vying for permanent positions here.

Ms. HOMOPHER: Oh, yes. I really like the people here. I like the place. They have good benefits, good pay. I'm just hoping for the best.

KAUFMAN: Amazon is expected to make some of those offers early next year.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

CRAIG LEMOULT: And I'm Craig Lemoult, here in Torrington, Connecticut, where they're getting ready for another Christmas tradition -dinner. I'm at Nodine's Smokehouse, where they're smoking hams, bacon, duck, venison, beef jerky, basically anything you can smoke. And they're so busy shipping out orders that they've hired a few temporary workers.

Mr. MICKEY FADOIR (Temporary Worker): This is definitely a godsend.

LEMOULT: That's Micky Fadoir, who's packing smoked hams into boxes to ship them out in time for the holidays. He used to work full-time for the small company, but now, he comes in just to help with the holiday rush. The rest of the year, he's a farmer.

Mr. FADOIR: This past year, I had 55 varieties of tomatoes and 30-some varieties of peppers.

LEMOULT: Fadoir is 58 years old, and he looks so much like Santa Claus that he says sometimes kids come up to him and say, hi, Santa. But this is a food processing facility, so there's one big difference.

Mr. FADOIR: We're wearing hair nets and because I've got a beard as large as it is, I've got a beard net on also.

LEMOULT: Also, he's not really all that jolly.

Mr. FADOIR: Bah, humbug.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEMOULT: That's because of the hectic pace filling orders at Nodine's. The company is known nationally for its smoked meats, and they do about $4 million in sales annually, and about a quarter of that is just during the holiday season.

Mr. FADOIR: It's been so long that I've been doing this that I'm burned out on the holidays.

Ms. JENNIFER BUTTERWORTH (Temporary Worker): Do we have any S4s anywhere, Mickey? You got them all made up. Oh, great.

LEMOULT: That's Jennifer Butterworth looking for boxes to pack more hams. She's also a temporary worker here. She was laid off from her last job as a paralegal in the fall.

Ms. BUTTERWORTH: I'm friends with somebody who works here. And I asked if they were looking for any help over the holidays.

LEMOULT: As she packs boxes of frozen smoked hams to ship all over the country, she puts in cooking instructions and personal notes that say things like Merry Christmas, love Grandma.

Ms. BUTTERWORTH: You know, while food is something that goes very quickly, there's a lot of people that really don't need a lot of extra stuff that they can't use. Food's a perfect gift. Everybody loves food.

LEMOULT: Although she was hired just to help out during the holiday rush, her manager says he likes her, and they're hoping to keep her on permanently.

Ms. BUTTERWORTH: I'm going to leave it in God's hands and see what happens.

LEMOULT: If the economy were to grow strong enough for the company to hire her, Butterworth would get her own Christmas miracle.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Lemoult in Torrington, Connecticut.

WADE GOODWYN: I'm Wade Goodwyn in Dallas. It's 2:30 in the afternoon and North Park Mall is an insane asylum. Try to get between Dallas and shopping, you're a dead man walking. There are the usual Christmas mall events, performances by local choirs and musical groups, et cetera. But by far, the biggest draw at North Park is the Lionel train exhibition.

Unidentified Man #1: Please wait for me to go, over.

Unidentified Man #2: Copy that, dispatcher.

GOODWYN: Twenty-four trains move in an intricate dance of over 1,600 feet of track. They pass by the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, decked out in Christmas snow. There's New York City, the Grand Canyon and a talking Big Tex at the State Fair.

The trains are great, but it's the beautiful sets, the incredible modeling that wows everyone. Eighty thousand people will see this exhibit over the holidays, but this year, there something different. For the first time, there's a pop-up Lionel store at end of the exhibition.

Unidentified Man #3: All aboard. This is the Polar Express.

GOODWYN: Lionel could not ask for a better display of locomotive fantasy. Wayne Holsey(ph) is the temporary manager of this pop-up. Holsey and his wife operated a family business until she was involved in a bad car accident. So this job, two months at $12 an hour plus commission...

Mr. WAYNE HOLSEY (Temporary Manager): For me, it is a chance to work during the holiday that I wouldn't have had. It really meets the need for our family and keeps us in our home right now.

GOODWYN: Holsey was hired by Kevin Huska(ph).

Mr. KEVIN HUSKA: We hire a lot of high school and early 20's. And we also try to hire a lot of seasoned employees.

GOODWYN: If Wade Holsey is a face of this new economy, so is Kevin Huska. They owned their own apparel store. Now, they make enough money running 10 pop-up stores with 120 temporary employees to sustain them through the entire year. They're not getting rich, but it's not a bad life.

Mr. HUSKA: Try to spend time with the kids, and my wife is a vacation hound. She loves to go vacationing.

GOODWYN: Six-year-old Connor Barzak(ph) just finished going through the exhibit and his eyes are shining so brightly you could navigate by them. He doesn't want a long train.

Mr. CONNOR BARZAK: The Polar Express and this car of it and the steam locomotive B3 right here.

GOODWYN: The Polar Express plus a beautiful steam locomotive, plenty of power for steep grades. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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