Economic Downturn Limits Seasonal Jobs

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It's not a good time to be looking for seasonal employment. Here's an example of how stiff the competition is for holiday temp work: When electronics retailer Best Buy recently advertised 24,000 seasonal positions, 1 million people applied.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the country's biggest toy retailers filed for bankruptcy yesterday. KB Toys pointed to what it called a sudden and sharp decline in consumer sales during its most critical season, right now. The chain plans to hold liquidation sales during this holiday-shopping period, and it will close stores in January, more than 450 of them. Many of KB Toys' 10,000 or so employees are seasonal, so they will have work for another month, but in the broader economy, those looking for seasonal work now are having a hard time. Here's an example of how stiff the competition is for holiday temp work. The electronics retailer Best Buy recently advertised 24,000 seasonal positions, and nearly one million people applied. Rachel Dornhelm has the story.

(Soundbite of typing)

RACHEL DORNHELM: At a career center in Alameda, California, Vivian Harden Butler(ph) is updating her resume.

Ms. VIVIAN HARDEN BUTLER: I just got laid off from Peralta College at Merritt in the financial aid department.

DORNHELM: That happened in October. Since then, she's been applying for jobs in social services, but it's slow going and she's desperate for a seasonal job as a fallback. Butler says she signed up with six temp agencies.

Ms. BUTLER: And I've just been out looking, haven't found anything. Even though I'm overqualified, but I'm willing to take anything, even if it is a warehouse job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DORNHELM: Butler says she's not new to seasonal work, but it's never been this hard to find.

Ms. BUTLER: I've even worked with the post office as a casual and they, usually, every season - tax season, Christmas season - have positions open for casuals, you know, seasonal. And they don't.

DORNHELM: Even the career center Butler is visiting had to cancel its annual seasonal job fair for a lack of employers.

(Soundbite of shopping mall)

DORNHELM: Electronics retailer Best Buy is one of those that did hire holiday help, but for every person they employed, they had to turn away at least 40 other applicants.

(Soundbite of checkout scanner)

Ms. CASEY ABBOTT (Cashier, Best Buy): Do you have the Best Buy Reward Zone membership card?

Unidentified Woman #1: No, I don't.

Ms. ABBOTT: Would you like to sign up for one today?

DORNHELM: Cashier Casey Abbott(ph) was one of the lucky ones. She is one of 40 seasonal hires at the Oakland-Emeryville Best Buy. She says she applied for work at 10 different stores.

Ms. ABBOTT: It was really hard to even get an interview this year, when, usually, for seasonal positions, it's really easy to, at least, get interviewed. You might not get the job, but it's easy to get interviewed.

DORNHELM: Abbot was interviewed by Best Buy manager Shaun Charles(ph). Charles says the caliber of seasonal job applicants this year was impressive.

Mr. SHAUN CHARLES (Manager, Best Buy, Emeryville, California): I think it's due to the job losses out there. So, we've had a lot more people apply than we did last year.

DORNHELM: Charles says there were a lot more college graduates and professionals to choose from, rather than the usual high school and college students. He says the upside is for consumers who are getting better service. It's not so good for temporary workers, of course.

Mr. KEN JACOBS (Chair, Center for Labor Research and Education, University of California at Berkeley): And for many people, that seasonal employment, that's how they make their ends meet for the year.

DORNHELM: Ken Jacobs is chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. He says historically, in tough economic times, retail hasn't had major employment fluctuations. Retail was generally a place people could go in a recession when their other jobs disappeared.

Mr. JACOBS: And again, what's so striking about this recession is having the jobs like retail decline so you just don't have that safety net for people to fall back on.

DORNHELM: Vivian Butler, the woman working on her resume at the career center, understands that all too well. She says she's squeaking by with food stamps and $336 a month in general assistance. Butler says she's going to keep applying for holiday jobs, alongside long-term prospects.

Ms. BUTLER: Because I know I'll get a job, eventually. You know, I know that. As soon as probably this Christmas season is over, but like I said, my main thing - I just want to make sure I have something for my grandkids because Christmas is not like I used to have it for them, you know, a Christmas tree and all the stuff I used to have. I can't do it this year.

DORNHELM: She says if she gets a job, she'll buy her grandkids a coat and a videogame. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Dornhelm.

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