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Calling All Elves: Retail Firms Seek Workers for Holiday Rush

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While the biggest shopping season of the year officially kicks off today, retailers are engaged in another rush - the rush to recruit holiday workers.

With the economy five years into a recovery and unemployment relatively low, everyone from department store managers to the United States Post Office is scrambling this year to make sure operations are fully staffed for Christmas.

Consider: Sears, Roebuck & Co. alone plans to hire 30,000 to 40,000 extra workers, and United Parcel Service calculates that it needs 100,000 loaders, sorters, and delivery workers.

To bring in the retail troops, companies are trying a variety of strategies. Some are shelling out referral bonuses to employees. Lands' End, for example, pays $35 to each worker who recruits someone for the holidays. Others are extending benefits to holiday helpers, staging more recruiting fairs, and displaying poster-size help-wanted signs in windows. Most, however, aren't contemplating raising wages.

"The labor market is tight, so it's a little more difficult for retailers [to find workers]," says Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the National Retail Federation in Washington.

Estimates indicate that the holiday shopping season generates a million or more jobs - everything from gift wrappers and sales clerks to package deliverers and Christmas-tree cutters. Some 700,000 of these jobs are in the retail industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many recruiters won't even entertain questions about a labor shortage. Their concern: Shoppers might get the impression that there won't be enough people to wait on them - a major faux pas in the retailing industry. Yet while it's unlikely that stores will go without enough help, companies aren't taking any chances. For example:

*Sears, the nation's second-largest retailer, has been enlisting local churches and garden clubs, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to help recruit holiday workers. In addition, it's been sending out job flyers in its monthly credit statements and paying up to $100 to employees who recommend new hires. "We've been a little more aggressive this year than in the past because the market has been so tight," says James Maloney, human resources manager for Sears's Boston district.

*In Dodgeville, Wis., where Lands' End is based, the unemployment rate is as low as a tuba note - 2 percent. Still, the catalog company has already hired the additional 2,200 packers, shippers, and order-takers it needs for the holidays - thanks to an aggressive recruiting plan.

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