Retailers Are Scrambling For Workers Ahead Of The Holiday Season

by Christina Marfice

Facing an ongoing, unprecedented labor shortage, retailers are offering bonuses, benefits, and big perks to attract holiday workers

All throughout the pandemic, retail workers have been the backbone that held our lives together. They worked at the grocery stores while people made runs on toilet paper and food. They staffed the restaurants that pivoted to takeout and delivery in a desperate bid to stay afloat. And while they were billed as heroes in the pandemic’s early days, today they’re burnt out, exhausted, and over it. They faced high exposure to the virus. Many got sick and died. They’ve had to deal with confrontations with the public over masks and vaccines. And now, with the holiday shopping season fast approaching, retailers are getting increasingly desperate to attract workers to an industry that’s spent two years treating them like they’re expendable. You can’t help but enjoy the reckoning.

The New York Times reports that major retailers like Macy’s, Walmart, and Amazon are offering $500 referral bonuses, free college tuition, and signing bonuses up to $3,000, respectively. This year, the holiday season is expected to be busy. And amid ongoing, unprecedented worker shortages, retailers are now scrambling to be ready. You can likely already see the effects: empty store shelves, long lines and checkout, and stores that are clearly understaffed as Black Friday quickly approaches.

In this tight labor market, workers have the upper hand for the first time in recent memory. There are far more jobs available than there are people to take them. Experts don’t know exactly why, but they think it’s a combination of factors: Pandemic assistance helped people build up their savings, many retailer workers transitioned to safer industries during the pandemic, and people are finally saying “No” to jobs that don’t pay them enough to survive — especially if those jobs also put their health at risk. Then there’s the factor that no one seems ready to talk about: That more than 750,000 Americans have died, with more than 1,000 more dying each day, and those who are dying are disproportionately BIPOC, low-income, and members of the labor class.

“Folks looking to work in retail have typically had very little choice — it’s largely been driven by geography and availability of hours,” said Mark A. Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University’s business school. “Now they can pick and choose who’s got the highest, best benefits, bonuses and hourly rates. And as we’ve seen, the escalation has been striking.”

This year, Walmart is offering $17 an hour to new workers as it seeks to add 150,000 new people to its current workforce. Saks Off 5th has committed to remaining closed on Thanksgiving, knowing it will be unlikely to attract the workers it needs if it expects them to work on the holiday. Nordstrom, which wants to hire nearly 30,000 seasonal workers, is offering bonuses up to $650 for hourly and overnight store workers.

Joel Bines, global co-leader of the retail practice at the consulting firm AlixPartners told the Times that it’s up to retailers to meet workers’ needs.

“For retailers, who have treated their workers as dispensable cogs in order to increase the bottom line, to say they are shocked that they can’t find people to work for them is hard to believe,” he said. “The thing that the industry needs to realize is that workers have agency now. They have agency in a way they never have before.”