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Help Wanted: Retailers Double Down on Calls for Vacation Workers

With the U.S. economy heading into recession, the holidays are looking unlikely for tens of thousands of Americans as big tech companies like Amazon, Twitter and Facebook parent Meta have announced they will be handing out pink notes in lieu of Thanksgiving turkeys.

But the job news in Hawaii hasn’t been so bad — at least for the service-oriented sectors that play a big part in the state’s economy.

The holidays this year could actually be a particularly good time for people to pick up a few extra bucks with a short-term retail gig.

Total nonfarm payrolls in Hawaii have risen to pre-pandemic levels, standing at about 614,700 in September, compared with 659,100 in February 2020 before the pandemic began, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is offset by a low of around 507,900.

Meanwhile, the nationwide unemployment rate was 3.5% in September, compared with a peak of 22.4% in April 2020.

Jen Abuel
Jen Abuel, manager of Surf Camp and Up and Riding at Kahala Mall, is one of a number of retailers looking to hire ahead of the holidays. “We’re just hiring all the time,” she said. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

All of this means retailers are pushing harder than ever to find people.

“This is sort of our Super Bowl,” said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, a trade association. “Everyone is looking for employees and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified employees.”

There is no federal data on the discontinuation of seasonal holidays in retail, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization.

However, Bonham said the numbers show that while the overall retail employment recovery is still lower than before the pandemic, it has dogged Hawaii’s overall recovery.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 64,600 retail jobs nationwide in September, compared to 71,100 in February 2020 before the pandemic.

Given the relative lack of data, Bonham said the best way to find out what’s going on is to talk to retailers.

“You probably need to go to the mall,” he said.

A quick tour of Kahala Mall confirms Yamaki’s claim that almost everyone is looking for help. A case in point is Jen Abuel, manager of Up and Riding and its sister shop Surf Camp, a surf boutique that sells a range of ocean and nature-related items, including coolers, camping gear, and swim fins and masks. Together, the two stores need a dozen workers, Abuel said.

Abuel said she would welcome permanent or seasonal work for the holidays. Shops pay $12 to $14 an hour, she said, depending on experience. And she said workers are being trained in all aspects of retail.

That makes the job a great stepping stone into retail, Abuel said, but many of the college and high school-age employees leave after a while, either to go to college or to go home to the mainland for the school holidays .

The result: “We’re just hiring all the time,” she says.

Locally owned small shops like Sugar Sugar Hawaii jewelry and gift shop, which has posted flyers in the shop for those seeking help, and SoHa Living are also hiring.

“We’re looking for layers of all kinds,” said Kayla Fuentes, store manager at SoHa Living.

Big retailers are hiring too

It’s not just jobs for high school kids in affluent Kahala.

Indeed.com features seasonal job listings across Oahu. For example, Bath & Body Works is hiring in Aiea, Kaneohe, Pearlridge and Kapolei. Target, Ross, Macy’s and TJ Maxx’s parent company, TJX, also hired seasonal workers across the island.

All of this is a big change from the worst days of the pandemic, Yamaki says, when retail workers were sent home by government-imposed store closures. Many marginalized workers simply never came back when shops reopened, Yamaki said.

Some retired, others turned side hustles into full-time jobs, and others fled the state entirely as part of an ongoing trend of emigration, Yamaki said.

Masked and unmasked people walk past the shops at the Ala Moana mall.
Demand for seasonal work is high as the holiday season kicks off. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But the Big Resignation only exacerbated a problem that existed before Covid-19, Yamaki said. Before Covid-19, Hawaii’s unemployment rate of just over 2% meant anyone who needed a job could get one, and employers struggled to find help.

“Even before the pandemic, everyone was understaffed,” Yamaki said.

Demand for seasonal workers in 2022 may resemble happier times before the pandemic, but Yamaki said there are key differences. For example, she said, this year many retailers have introduced Black Friday sales in October instead of the traditional Friday after Thanksgiving. And while many retailers open as early as 12 noon on the Friday after Thanksgiving, that’s not happening this year, she said.

Perhaps more importantly, as an indicator of the economic outlook, many retailers are reducing their orders for merchandise this year.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, said it was a sign of caution.

“You have to be careful, especially because many small businesses have faced so many challenges,” she said.

Despite the overall increase in employment in Hawaii, Bonham noted there were some anomalies that he couldn’t explain. Wholesale jobs never recovered. And jobs in banking and insurance — the kind of office jobs that can be done from home — have also declined and have never recovered, he noted.

While the abundance of seasonal jobs could bring people extra cash, they’re unlikely to be an economic savior for the enormous number of people struggling with Hawaii’s high cost of living. A much-cited 2017 study by Aloha United Way found that 42% lived in poverty or barely earned enough to cover basic living expenses such as shelter, food and transportation. A 2020 update estimated the number could climb significantly higher due to the economic shocks of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, studies suggest it’s difficult to make ends meet on Hawaii’s average retail wage. The Aloha United Way, for example, put the hourly wage for a person in Hawaii at about $14 in 2015, which would be about $18 in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on living wages puts the figure even higher, at nearly $23. The average September retail job in Hawaii, meanwhile, paid about $22 an hour, the bureau reports.

Still, many seasonal workers might be willing to accept lower wages in exchange for an employer’s willingness to train a first-time employee and accommodate the worker’s busy schedule.

According to SoHa Living’s Fuentes, store managers are used to overseeing employees’ school, sport and extracurricular activities.

“We’re like – hey, what’s your availability? We’ll handle it,” she said.

Hawaii’s Economy in Transitionis supported by a grant from Hawaii Community Foundation as part of the CHANGE Framework project.

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