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  • Writer's pictureRachel Garbus

For seasonal employees, short-term work has its ups and downs

Holiday work no longer means ringing up purchases at the department store. Still, there’s room for the occasional Santa.

 
Photo: Atlanta Christkindl Market

It’s a busy Sunday evening at the Atlanta Christkindl Market, but Jessica Pantino is smiling as she pours steaming cups of glühwein for a long line of eager customers. Pantino’s job at the popular Buckhead Village District holiday market is temporary—lasting from the weekend before Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve—but it’s a nice break from the usual: The rest of the year, she’s a traveling pediatric emergency room nurse. This year she decided to pick up the Christkindl gig to stay closer to her family and get a change of pace. “I love being able to talk to people—everyone’s so friendly,” Pantino says. “It’s just festive!” 


Pantino is one of scores of Atlantans picking up temporary employment during the holidays. The local workforce spikes every year beginning in early fall, as companies gear up for the busy season ahead—largely in retail trade, transportation and warehousing, and leisure and hospitality. According to the Georgia Department of Labor, the Atlanta metro added nearly 24,000 jobs in those sectors between September and December 2022, the last year for which statistics are available.


For many people, like Pantino, seasonal holiday jobs are an opportunity to pick up some extra cash or gain a new skill. For others, they’re a part of the tenuous gig economy, where workers piece together short-term work or juggle multiple jobs—while the cost of living continues to rise. Children often believe holiday magic is handcrafted by pint-sized elves in Santa’s workshop. The real magic, however, is created by an army of seasonal hires, who work long overnights and odd hours to staff our markets, sort our holiday cards, deliver our Christmas gifts—and, yes, pour our glühwein. 


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Once upon a time, the typical seasonal holiday job was cashing out customers at the department store. But no longer, says Tom Smith, a finance professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “It used to be that you could clock the strength of the holiday economy by going to Macy’s and seeing how many cash registers were going at once, seeing how deep the lines went,” Smith says. “Now, people are buying most of their stuff on Amazon, so that informal indicator doesn’t really work anymore.” 


This December, American shipping companies were expected to handle a whopping 82 million packages a day. “With more customers opting to shop online rather than in brick-and-mortar stores, there has been a shift to more hiring in transportation and warehousing than in retail trade,” says Shawna Mercer, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Labor. This year, UPS said it would hire 100,000 seasonal workers nationwide, and Amazon announced plans to bring on 250,000. These are often physically demanding warehouse jobs with long hours and unpredictable schedules, but they have their perks. Companies bringing on workers en masse may offer sign-on bonuses or higher-than-average wages, and often hire applicants on the spot at job fairs or hiring expos: In the state of Georgia, UPS said about 80 percent of its seasonal hires wouldn’t require an interview.


“It used to be that you could clock the strength of the holiday economy by going to Macy’s and seeing how many cash registers were going at once, seeing how deep the lines went. Now, people are buying most of their stuff on Amazon, so that informal indicator doesn’t really work anymore.”

Radial, a Pennsylvania-based logistics company that facilitates delivery for store brands, has hired more than 1,000 seasonal employees at fulfillment centers in Buford and Locust Grove. Radial hires through staffing companies, who recruit workers and assign them to roles based on Radial’s needs. This contingent workforce mostly handles packages, “picking” items off shelves, “packing” them into boxes to be shipped, and processing the returns that begin piling up even before Christmas. Starting pay is $16.50, with increases in wages during peak season to make the positions more attractive. 


Holiday hires don’t have a set end date, says Genna Perugini, senior program manager of contingent labor at Radial: “Workers hired for seasonal roles are aware that the position is temporary, and contracts end as volume and needs decline.” Top performers may be recruited for full-time work, and Radial expects to convert 2,000 seasonal hires into full-time employees nationwide. Perugini started as a seasonal employee herself, 12 years ago, before converting to full-time. But many seasonal employees aren’t interested in that, she adds: “Some associates are just here for the holiday money. And many of them come back year after year.”


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Radial, like most companies that staff short-term workers, doesn’t offer benefits to contingent hires. Some temporary workers may get health insurance through the staffing agency that hired them, but it’s not a given; according to the insurance company Mployer, only 50 percent of staffing agencies offer health coverage. Other benefits, like disability insurance and paid family leave, are even rarer. Seasonal workers don’t always know when their job will end, either: Internet message boards, for instance, are rife with complaints from retail employees who say they were notified only moments before clocking out that this shift will be their last


“Frailties in the labor market can be true whether it’s a full-time job or not. A lot of hourly jobs don’t come with benefits or any kind of ancillary elements anymore.”

This kind of uncertainty isn’t limited to seasonal employment, of course: For many Americans, as more of the labor force shifts to gig work, the benefits once associated with holding a steady job have melted away. “Frailties in the labor market can be true whether it’s a full-time job or not,” explains Smith, the Goizueta finance professor. “A lot of hourly jobs don’t come with benefits or any kind of ancillary elements anymore.” In 1998, 63 percent of Americans had employer-provided health insurance; by 2021, that number had fallen below 54 percent. This year, companies’ unease about the “bad vibes economy” may further increase the uncertainty of seasonal work. Inflation appears to be driving down consumer spending, and hiring is contracting in response: U.S. holiday hiring in 2023 was projected to be its weakest since 2008, says Shawna Mercer of the Georgia Department of Labor.


Christkindl market manager Kim Eickhoff had no problem filling the positions she needed. “People seemed excited about the work!” she says as she rings up customers at another drinks station.


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Santa Andre visits Brave + Kind Bookshop in Decatur. | Photo: Santa Andre

For some, temporary holiday work is worth the ups and downs. Andre Parker is in his second season as Santa Andre, traveling the city doing photo sessions and meet-and-greets with kids and families. “I was excited when we came up with the idea to become a Black Santa,” Parker said. “But it wasn’t until I put the suit on and saw the faces and smiles from children and older people—that’s when it really hit me that this was a big deal.” 


Parker runs Black Santa of Atlanta with his wife, Tanisha Parker. Last year, the Parkers made $12,000 just in December; this year, they started in early September and had already cleared $20,000 by early December. For Andre Parker, a former Marine who’s retired from a career in law enforcement, the seasonal work is a nice way to pad his budget and not dip into savings. But it’s also a way to connect with families around the city and spread some holiday cheer. Plus, with his magnificent white beard, Parker was perfect for the job. 


“Anyone can put on a Santa suit and play Santa,” he said. “But in order to be a good Santa, you have to have it in your heart.” 

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