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More pay, more perks and no drug tests: Finding workers in tight labor market

Stores are closing all over the place. All of the factories have moved to China. The robots are taking over.

It's impossible to get a job out there, right?

Wrong.

Finding a job in the Buffalo Niagara region is easier than it has been in almost 20 years.

Filling those jobs has become the hard part.

With baby boomers leaving the workforce and population stagnant, the pool of available workers in Buffalo Niagara has been getting smaller for decades. Hiring has picked up over the past 10 years and, in July, unemployment sank to an 18-year low of 4.5 percent. That has created a labor shortage that has companies desperate for workers.

As a result, employers are raising salaries, offering more perks and, in some cases, lowering their standards to fill positions.

In local school districts, for instance, substitute teachers are at a premium. So what do you do when you have a room full of kids and no teacher? At Iroquois Central Schools, other teachers cover for their absent colleagues by eating lunch in the classroom, skipping their planning period (and getting paid to take it at home) or combining study halls. To try to entice more subs, the district has increased its pay rate, begun advertising in a wider radius, and now accepts applicants who have limited availability. It also has tried to recruit students who are still in college and convince retirees with non-teaching backgrounds to give subbing a shot.

"We're trying everything we can think of, along with every other school in Western New York," said Douglas Scofield, the district's superintendent.

'Help wanted:' Local unemployment rate hits 18-year low in July

Zack Schneider, an owner of Ru's Pierogi, used to be able to hire line cooks "at a moment's notice," but its latest job listing has been posted since March. As the company grows, staffing is getting harder. It needs people to hand out food samples in stores, sell to new accounts, and work in its restaurant and factory.

Ru's used to be able to count on local refugees for a steady stream of dependable workers, but government cuts to the program that resettles refugees has decreased new refugee arrivals, making those workers harder to find.

"They were exceptional workers. You couldn't find more dedicated, passionate workers just happy to have a job," Schneider said.

The company also depended on retirees, but other companies have begun scooping them up, putting older workers in demand, too. To stay competitive, Ru's has begun offering free meals, more flexible schedules and paid time off to entry-level workers with more than one year on the job.

Penny Brite, a housecleaning service in North Tonawanda, has bumped up its wages and begun offering 401(k) retirement plans, hoping that will help it compete for new workers. Still, the company has had to turn away new business because it doesn't have enough employees. Sometimes, the company doesn't have enough people to keep up with the clients it already has.

Rolly Pollies, a children's gym with three locations, is trying to fill several open positions for full- and part-time gym teachers. It received 30 applications this month and called 18 people for interviews. Only six called back: Two of them cancelled and two simply didn't show up.

Things can be extra tough for nonprofit organizations. Community Missions of Niagara Frontier recently lost both project managers at its Aurora House in Lockport, a home for teenagers with mental illness. Support staff from throughout the organization is stretched thin while it tries to fill the jobs — just two of 17 openings. And staffing the midnight shift at its overnight emergency shelter? Forget it.

The state Office of Mental Health recently approved wage increases, which has helped, but government-regulated salaries make it hard to compete with corporations. Working conditions can be taxing, too. Staffing its midnight shifts is especially challenging. To compete for workers, Community Missions started a book club that meets during the workday, hands out sports tickets to employees and takes them bowling. But with its hands tied on salary and benefits, and facing other practical and regulatory restrictions, there's not much more it can do to sweeten the pot.

"Obviously you can't work from home and we can't let you bring your dog to work," said Christian Hoffman, a spokesman for Community Missions.

But companies that can make such accommodations should do just that — and go even further, according to Maggie Shea, managing partner at Main Street employment firm StaffBuffalo.

She has had to "educate" companies about what makes for a competitive salary these days, she said. If an employer can't or won't bring up compensation rates, she lets them know they'll have to lower their education standards or experience requirements.

But it's not just about the money.

Today's workers want a better work-life balance and a pleasant work environment, and Shea helps her client companies figure out ways to offer both.

"Those organizations that say, 'OK, you have two scheduled breaks and a half-hour lunch,' that's not going to attract high-caliber candidates," Shea said. "Now it's more, 'You're a professional, this is what needs to get done. As long as it's done well, we're happy.' It's not based on hours or face-time, it's based on the quality of work."

That means more employees are working from home and keeping flexible schedules. They can leave early for their kid's baseball game or to take their cat to the vet, then catch up later that night on their laptop. Employers are being more generous with paid time off and health insurance, too. But the transformations get much more radical than that.

As recreational marijuana use becomes legal in several states and Canada, some companies have eliminated testing for the drug, and several others are beginning to phase it out. One client recently had to turn down a "great candidate" because of a failed drug test, so it's working to change its policies to prevent it from happening again, Shea said.

"I think the times, they are a-changing in a unique way," Shea said.

Free food is a popular perk. Some companies stock free vending machines, deliver fresh fruit every week or comp lunches. Free time also goes over well. One client shuts down at noon on Fridays, others give paid days off for birthdays and treat workers to group outings while they're on the clock, she said.

Staff Buffalo itself closes its offices the week between Christmas and New Year's. It has taken employees on tiki cruises, installed a shower in the office so its "very active employees" who run in Delaware Park can freshen up afterward, and allows dogs at work when there are no clients around. Employees aren't allowed at work when they're sick and get paid to volunteer on company time.

Such perks attract good employees, and help companies retain them, too.

"If they're underpaid or overworked, they're going to get pulled away," Shea said.

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