CT grocery chain sees 'added challenges' in hiring seasonal workers

As Connecticut’s retail and shipping sector staffs up for the 2021 holiday season, many are bracing for what could be a tougher sell luring people back to the work force who sat out the pandemic for varying reasons, whether due to health concerns, not finding quite the right opportunities, or content to make ends meet on unemployment compensation.

Stew Leonard’s supermarket, with nearby locations in Norwalk and Danbury, is among those pushing hard to staff up ahead of October, when pay for all seasonal workers will climb a dollar or two to $15 for the duration of the season. Cashiers are needed the most, according to Ellen Story, vice president of human resources, followed by those who can help customers load Christmas trees onto their vehicles.

“We do roughly 50 percent of our hiring for the entire year in this busy fourth quarter — always a challenge to fill those very-much-needed seasonal positions,” Story said Friday. “Definitely this year, we’ve seen added challenges to hitting those numbers. ... We have daily email conversations with the HR team to try to come up with creative ideas to get people to apply and join us for the holidays.”

Entering September, there were more than 100,000 potential seasonal job candidates in Connecticut in the form of people receiving jobless compensation, as counted by the state Department of Labor’s most recent census. Of that group, about two-thirds made less than $35,000 on an annualized basis prior to losing work as reported to DOL.

While many of those people might regard seasonal work as outside the bounds of their current or eventual job search, the potential pool is enlarged by people working part-time already who are willing to shoehorn in extra hours elsewhere, or students looking to pad their bank accounts heading into the holidays.

Story got her start doing just that, starting to work as a part-time cashier at Stew Leonard’s in 1986 while a student at Norwalk High School, with no idea at the time she would stay there for her career. She estimated about one in every five seasonal workers end up landing permanent jobs at Stew Leonard’s, with the company filling four of every five managerial positions by promoting from within. Stew Leonard’s allows college students to pick up shifts while home on break.

While bonuses adding up to thousands of dollars are not in the offing for seasonal workers on the job for less than four months, Amazon is offering offering $500 up front for seasonal workers to scan, sort and load deliveries, with regular pay of up to $18 an hour.

It is more than being offered by many other seasonal employers, from Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort which is advertising for lift operators, snow makers and instructors on its Middletown slopes; to the Essex Steam Train which needs a variety of characters to serve cocoa and cookies on the North Pole Express; to Bridgewater Chocolate in Brookfield which is seeking a warehouse worker to handle holiday demand.

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman