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Shippers still seeking seasonal workers

A United Parcel Service (UPS) delivery man unloads boxes from his truck outside a business in Washington, D.C.

The national unemployment rate is 7.9 percent right now, and most everyone needs a little extra cash to buy stuff this time of year.

And yet, a bunch of companies that deal with the holiday retail madness say they can’t find enough workers this year to staff their distribution centers and wrapping-stations and delivery trucks. There are jobs for thousands of seasonal workers available in places like Kentucky and New Jersey and New Hampshire. A person could work at UPS, or Amazon, or GSI Commerce -- an eBay subsidiary that does online order fulfillment for major retailers nationwide. These jobs are available at least through Christmas; then maybe it’s back on the unemployment line again.

UPS is advertising on radio and via YouTube, the opportunity to put on ‘UPS brown’ -- the classic uniform of a UPS driver -- or, a seasonal driver’s-helper, anyway. An ad running now in New Hampshire announces: “UPS is hiring part-time package-handlers, all shifts, especially night and sunrise. And drivers’ helpers...”

If UPS brown isn’t your color, how about Kelly green? Kelly Services, the nationwide temporary staffing agency, is also hunting for workers. “We’re looking for general warehouse positions -- pickers, packers, leads, managers, inventory control,” says manager John Richie in the firm’s Louisville, Ky., regional office. Kelly is hiring for GSI Commerce.

At UPS, director of talent acquisition Matt Lavery says the company is still recruiting heavily in Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, New Hampshire. Also, in New Jersey: after Superstorm Sandy, some people who had been hired for seasonal jobs have been displaced, while others have taken clean-up jobs that pay better.

Lavery says UPS needed 55,000 workers this year, 10 percent more than last year.

“There’s been a little bit of an uptick in the economy,” he says, “so we have more competition out there right now, looking for seasonal employees.”

There is opportunity to turn seasonal jobs into full-time permanent jobs. Richie says at GSI, 15 percent to 20 percent of seasonal workers will be hired on after the holidays. Lavery says 40 percent of hires in the first-quarter at UPS are typically people who were initially hired as seasonal workers. Once on the permanent payroll, they are able to join the UPS union and receive higher pay and benefits.

Many of the seasonal jobs on offer right now pay just above minimum wage -- starting at $8.50 an hour, with no benefits -- and they end in a month. It makes one wonder: Are people on unemployment holding out for something better?

Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project doesn’t think so. “In most situations, when they get into a retail warehouse position, workers will go off unemployment, then go back on after the job is over,” he says. In certain states -- those with more restrictive work rules -- workers may lose part or all of their unemployment benefit for a period of time during and after they take a temporary job, says Emsellem.

Emsellem thinks people on unemployment are more likely to take these seasonal jobs than people who are not receiving benefits. That’s partly because the rules say they have to remain actively engaged in job searching, and partly because when they earn additional income, it can make their unemployment checks larger once they’re out of work again.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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