Small businesses up the ante in quest for seasonal help

Joyce M. Rosenberg
Associated Press

Chris Welles isn’t taking chances with holiday staffing. He’s paying seasonal employees more than last year and offering sports and theater tickets to persuade people to work at his stores.

“We’re in a full employment economy in the service industry — especially in the Northeast where life is good and finding people to do retail jobs is a challenge,” says Welles, owner of American Rhino, a clothing retailer with a website and stores in Boston and Nantucket.

Welles, who has two open positions, is finding recruiting tougher this year in Boston, where unemployment is under the already low national rate of 3.7 percent. Welles is paying $15 to $16 an hour for his seasonal hires compared with last year’s $12 to $13, a significant increase for a small retailer. He’s also promised baseball tickets and the musical “Hamilton” as incentives for staffers to stay put.

The economy is stronger and fewer people are unemployed than last year, shrinking an already small pool of people available for temporary or part-time work during November and December, prime time for retailers and restaurants. But other small companies also need help because of employee vacations and workloads that don’t slow or that may unexpectedly increase.

All these businesses are competing with big companies including Amazon, retail chains and delivery services that hire thousands of workers for the holidays. About 350,000 people are expected to be hired for the holidays at four companies alone: Amazon, FedEx, Target and UPS. And Amazon will begin paying its seasonal and permanent staffers a minimum $15 an hour as of today, putting pressure on other employers including small businesses that may not be able to match that amount.

Human resources consultants say business owners should get creative in how and where they recruit. Perks like tickets and signing bonuses can help attract people. And owners need to search beyond the obvious places like online job boards and look for people like seniors who might be interested in a few weeks of work. Hiring remote staffers is another option.

Nicholas Kinports is nearly doubling what he paid seasonal staffers last year — workers will earn $40 to $50 an hour, compared with $20 and $30 in the past. But he’s still had a hard time finding all the workers he needs for his retail websites.

“It has absolutely changed from last year,” says Kinports, who operates Chicago-based, a website selling electronics, and, a retailer of Japanese knives. “I don’t have a theory about why — other than employment has gone up significantly and maybe wages are as well.”

Kinports needs to double his staff of 10 for the holidays. Some of his seasonal workers are returnees, and he also asks his staff and people he knows to recommend their friends. When he advertises, it’s on services like Craigslist. But he’s still struggling.

“It’s really tough when you’re in the world of Amazon and giants,” he says.