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Holiday jobs are here, but where are the workers?

The holiday hiring season is in full swing, and employers are fa-la-la-la freaking out a little.

Retailers and shipping companies need to beef up their ranks to handle the major increase in volume that's on its way with the fast-approaching holiday season. A few of them are adding even more employees than last year.

But there are fewer workers to go around.

Consumer confidence is high. The economy is strong. And unemployment is low. That's great for job seekers — not so much for employers.

"Businesses are facing a very tight labor market this season," said John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo.

With Buffalo-Niagara's 4.5 percent unemployment rate at an 18-year low, retailers will have a tougher time hiring this year than they've had since Pokemon cards and Razor scooters were burning up shoppers' Christmas lists.

So how are they going to do it?

For starters, they're probably going to have to offer more money, Slenker said.

Some companies are also trying other types of compensation, such as merchandise discounts, flexible scheduling and relaxed employee policies concerning drug tests and dress codes.

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Target has increased its hiring goals by 20 percent, and the $12 per hour wage it's offering shows it means business when it comes to recruiting.

The company will offer a 20 percent discount on certain items, such as fruits and vegetables, and a 10 percent discount in the rest of the store. It will also randomly select one worker at each of its six stores in the Buffalo Niagara market to receive a $500 gift card, plus a $500 donation to a community organization of their choice. It will hold open hiring events at all stores from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 12 to Oct. 14 and accepts applications online.

Kohl's started its hiring process earlier than usual this year and has already added thousands of seasonal workers to its national ranks, according to Ryan Festerling, the company's human resources vice president.

Locally, it's hiring at each of its stores in North Buffalo, Amherst, Lancaster, Orchard Park, East Amherst and Batavia. To entice workers, it is offering a 15 percent discount right away and a 35 percent discount during the holiday season, both online and in stores, with no exclusions. Kohl's will hold an open hiring event at select stores Oct. 20 and is accepting applications online.

JCPenney is looking to fill 180 seasonal roles at its stores in the Boulevard Mall, McKinley Mall and Walden Galleria, including cashiers, stockers and Sephora staffers. The retailer touts a flexible schedule and an employee discount of up to 25 percent off. It plans to hire about 3 percent fewer seasonal workers than it did last year.

Walmart, which has made a concerted effort in its online space to compete with Amazon, will not add seasonal workers, but offer additional hours to its current workers instead. It has done that  for the past two years.

"It’s worked very well for us and the feedback from customers and associates has been overwhelmingly positive, which is why we will do this again during the upcoming holiday season," said Eric Jones, a Walmart spokesman. "There may be some hiring on a store-by-store basis, but the majority of our stores will be giving those hours to current associates."

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Online shopping and shipping

UPS is hiring about 1,000 seasonal employees to serve Western New York through the holiday season, with wages from $10.40 to $34 per hour. The shipping company is looking for part-time package handlers, driver helpers and drivers. Package handlers also receive a $75 weekly attendance bonus for showing up for every shift on time.

"The labor situation is definitely tight this year, with unemployment in many markets at all-time lows, so we are working hard to recruit and retain," said Dan McMackin, a UPS spokesman.

Part of that effort is touting the possibility of a permanent job at the company once the season ends in January, which would mean full health care, pension benefits, opportunities for career advancement and tuition reimbursement up to $25,000.

UPS has hubs in Niagara Falls, Lockport, Dunkirk, Batavia, Allegheny, Jamestown and on James E. Casey Drive and has positions to fill at all of them. Job seekers can apply online, and hiring has already begun.

"If we didn't start now, we'd never have enough employees for when the big rush comes during Cyber Week," said Daniel Scheiber, the Northeast district human resources supervisor for UPS.

As online shopping has exploded, so have shipping needs. But seasonal shipping hiring isn't up as dramatically this year as it is at retailers. Nationally, UPS plans to hire about 5 percent more seasonal workers than it did last year. At FedEx, seasonal hires are projected to rise by about 10 percent to 55,000.

That could be because the shipping companies already saw their most drastic increases in 2014, which was also when consumer attitudes toward the digital marketplace shifted dramatically. That year, UPS increased its additional holiday payroll from 55,000 in 2013 to 95,000; while FedEx more than doubled its 2013 numbers from 20,000 workers to 50,000.

Amazon, the game-changing commerce juggernaut, has had retailers on their heels competing for market share. But Amazon may be the one scrambling this holiday season when it comes to hiring its share of seasonal workers.

The company is trying to fill more than 400 part-time positions for expanded operations at its Lancaster warehouse. Amazon's jobs, though, are permanent positions, opened up to staff new fulfillment operations that have been added to the site. The new employees, who will receive and process customer returns, will join 300 employees already working in the company's sortation operations.

The company will hold hiring events at from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday at the Hilton Garden Inn, 4201 Genesee St. in Cheektowaga; and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Fairfield Inn, 4271 Genesee St. in Cheektowaga. It is also accepting applications online.

So where will those workers come from?

Younger workers would be a likely draw, according to Slenker at the state Labor Department. Short-term holiday jobs have always been ideal gigs for college students and teenagers looking to make extra money, and many workers in that segment have dropped out of the labor market. After the crash of 2008, the market lost more than 1.5 million Americans ages 16 to 24, and young workers have been slow to rejoin the workforce.

But to fully fill out their ranks, employers will need to look to populations of workers they've shut out in the past, such as marijuana smokers, people who have been in prison and those without fluency in English.

In order to meet their staffing needs, many employers have had to relax their dress codes to accommodate people with visible tattoos and piercings, end drug testing for marijuana and offer more flexible schedules for people with unreliable transportation or child care issues.

"If you've got people willing to show up and work hard for you, you gotta work around any barriers they might have," Slenker said.

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

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