Area businesses are already looking to hire extra help for the holiday season, but are struggling to fill jobs in the wake of the pandemic.

“I don’t know of any business that isn’t having trouble finding employees. Especially restaurants and retail stores,” said Jack Lank, head of the United Regional Chamber of Commerce, which serves the area.

“One of the managers I spoke with who has a retail store in Emerald Square mall says he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the holiday season fast approaching,” Lank said.

Businesses in the North Attleboro mall in past years have brought on dozens of temporary workers for the holidays — particularly Christmas.

It isn’t just the small stores and large chain stores either that are vying for what seems to be a smaller pool than usual of prospective workers.

“We have a member that owns a hotel in Newport that now has to close two days a week because he can’t find help,” Lank said.

The businessman normally has 23 employees but is down to six.

“He could fill his rooms every night but can’t because he doesn’t have anyone to prep the rooms,” Lank said. “He told me one of the reasons is with the COVID pandemic the government has not issued any J-1 visas and it’s that population that fills most hospitality jobs.”

Those visas are for workers who come from other countries to temporarily work in the U.S.

Not all area businesses are facing a worker shortage, however.

An Unlikely Story bookstore on South Street (Route 1A) in downtown Plainville has hired a few workers with no problems.

“We are hiring for the holidays. So far it’s going great,” general manager Deb Sundin said. “We’re very fortunate there’s lots of book lovers who want to work in bookstores.”

The store has hired two or three temporary workers for the holidays, she said.

“Because we’re such a small store, we don’t hire many,” Sundin said. “We’re in pretty good shape.”

Tight job market

Across the country, businesses that typically hire thousands of seasonal workers are heading into the holidays during one of the tightest job markets in decades, making it unlikely they’ll find all the workers they need.

For shoppers, it might mean less than jolly holiday shopping, with unstaffed store aisles and online orders that take longer than usual to fill.

Job openings are plentiful, allowing seekers to be choosier where they work. There were 10.4 million job openings at the end of August and 11.1 million openings the month before, the highest since at least December 2000.

At the same time, the federal Labor Department said the number of people quitting their jobs jumped to 4.3 million in August, up from 4 million in July.

Even before the holiday hiring season, employers were so desperate to find workers they raised pay above $15 an hour, started offering four-figure bonuses and even promised to pay their schooling. But that yielded only limited success.

If they can’t find the workers they need in time for the holidays, employers will likely rely on existing staff to work more overtime, which can become costly for businesses and lead to burnout for workers. Also, extended holiday shopping hours are in jeopardy.

“I’ve never seen a market like this,” said Matt Lavery, UPS’s global director of sourcing and recruiting, who has worked on the hiring side of the package delivery company for 24 years. “Normally when you’re talking about people coming off unemployment benefits, you see surges in candidates. We’re not seeing those.”

Enhanced unemployment benefits, which included a $300-a-week federal supplement as well as programs that covered gig workers and people who were jobless for six months or more, ended in early September. That cut off aid to roughly 7 million people.

So far the termination of those programs appears to have had little effect on the number of people looking for work.

To hire available workers as fast as it can before they look for other openings, UPS is trying a new tactic, nearly doing away with interviews and conducting the whole hiring process online.

FedEx said it spent $450 million between June and August due to higher wages, paying overtime and other costs related to the tight job market.

FedEx said it needs 90,000 holiday workers this year — 20,000 more than last year, and Target about 100,000 — roughly 30,000 less than this past year, but with more pay going to those who work weekends. Others are hiring around the same levels as last year: Amazon, UPS and Walmart, each of which is trying to hire 100,000 or more.

There are many reasons why workers are in short supply, but they mostly revolve around the pandemic. The delta variant has made people fearful of working in tight spaces with others, and most major employers that hire hourly workers haven’t mandated vaccines for them yet. Child care issues leave people needing to stay home, and many have been saving money during the pandemic, giving them enough cash to avoid taking jobs they don’t want.

Also, employers with more than 100 workers have to mandate vaccines or offer weekly testing, which many workers oppose.

Analysts predict retailers will add 700,000 workers during the holidays this year, 36,000 fewer than last year.

Associated Press content was used in this report.

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