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Looking for a part-time job to earn some extra holiday cash? You may be in the driver’s seat — at least, when it comes to choosing work hours, some local employers say.

Hiring holiday help this year is forcing companies to be open-minded and flexible, said Tim Wolff, executive director of human resources for Colony Brands.

“People tell us when they want to work and we fit them into the schedule,” said Wolff.

Monroe-based Colony Brands has locations in four states, including distribution centers in Madison and Sun Prairie. Known for its Swiss Colony cheese-and-sausage boxes and its cakes, Colony Brands offers 11 brands of merchandise.

The Sun Prairie center handles orders from the Montgomery Ward and Seventh Avenue catalogs while the Madison center packs purchases from the Midnight Velvet and Monroe and Main offerings.

During the offseason, 350 to 400 people work at the two locations. But at winter holiday time and when spring catalogs are released, employment swells. This winter, 1,225 people are filling orders at the two locations, about 80 more than last year, Wolff said.

But it has not been easy finding workers. “As always, it’s a challenge, primarily just because of the numbers that we need to hire. It seems to be a little more difficult this year,” said Wolff, citing more competition for employees. Colony Brands has about 3,000 year-round full-time and part-time employees and as many as 6,500 or more during the peak periods.

Competitive labor market

The global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the improving economy may be another reason. “In a growing number of metropolitan areas, the unemployment rate has fallen below 3.5 percent, which means that the pool of available labor is relatively shallow,” CEO John A. Challenger said in a news release last Monday.

Retail employment gains

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the preliminary unemployment rate in the Madison metropolitan area was 2.6 percent in September, the most recent month for which figures are available.

Challenger said nationwide, 154,600 people were hired for retail positions in October, a 21 percent reduction from a year ago and “the fewest job gains to kick off the holiday hiring season since 2012,” based on an analysis of figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But that’s not necessarily bad news. Challenger said stronger employment during the year may have trimmed the need for seasonal hires.

At the same time, the big growth in online shopping at the holiday season may simply be shifting openings to other sectors, such as warehouse and transportation.

Even within the retail category, though, work opportunities are not shrinking, Challenger said. In October, 15,994,000 Americans were employed in retail jobs, up from 15,759,000 a year ago. It represents “the highest October employment level ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” Challenger said.

An NBC News story cited figures from Snagajob that said 90 percent of the companies surveyed plan to hire holiday help this year, up from 82 percent last year, and the average hourly pay for this year’s seasonal employees is nearly $14, up from under $10 last year.

Among the big holiday employers in the Madison area, Duluth Trading Co. would not provide figures but said its seasonal hiring this winter is “up slightly compared to last year.” The Belleville casual and work wear company has been growing rapidly since it raised $80 million in an initial public stock offering a year ago.

Two other companies, American Girl and Lands’ End, say their holiday hiring is about even with last year’s.

Pay ranges from about $10.50 to $14 or $15 an hour among the local companies that responded, and for some workers, the fringe benefits speak loudly, as well.

American Girl

Lisa Hanson is a warehouse processor at American Girl in Middleton for the second holiday season in a row.

“I just love the dolls,” Hanson said. Hanson, 46, still has the Kirsten and Josefina dolls she received when she was in her 20s and treated them to hair makeovers last year. Hanson’s grandmother, who is 94, tops that with five American Girl dolls.

Working for the company last winter was “a lot of fun” and “a lot of work,” said Hanson, who slides books under the dolls’ arms and makes sure the doll boxes have stickers that direct them to Kohl’s or Toys R Us. “I learned a lot about American Girl,” she said.

Emma Strobel is another American Girl fan who’s a first-time seasonal employee at the company. “I’ve grown up knowing American Girl, reading all the stories” and advice books, said Strobel, 24.

Strobel recently moved to the Madison area from Baraboo and wanted a job “to get my feet wet.” Working in the call center, she helps customers place orders and handles complaints. “You can hear joy in their voices when you solve the problem,” Strobel said.

American Girl expects to have nearly 1,800 seasonal workers at its three Wisconsin locations and another 1,000 at its stores throughout the U.S. That’s nearly double the 2,076 employees the Middleton doll, book and accessories company employs year-round.

American Girl — part of toy giant Mattel of El Segundo, California — already offered 30 percent discounts on its own merchandise and Mattel’s. This year, seasonal staff can get new perks, including a $100 referral bonus; a 2 percent bonus for all hours worked in October to December; and a $200 signing bonus for forklift drivers, spokeswoman Stephanie Spanos said.

Being more flexible with scheduling requirements and hiring 16- and 17-year-olds are also among the new tactics this year. “We’re offering more shift options — for example, shifts from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to accommodate parents of school-age children, or weekend-only shifts,” Spanos said.

American Girl expects to add 484 seasonal workers at its Middleton headquarters and warehouse; 825 at its DeForest distribution center; and 473 at its Wilmot distribution and call center.

Lands’ End

Lands’ End plans to hire about 2,000 seasonal workers to staff its Dodgeville and Reedsburg distribution and call centers and Stevens Point call center and embroidery operation, spokeswoman Michele Casper said.

“Overall, there continues to be a lot of competition for seasonal and part-time employment in all of our hiring markets, requiring creative staffing strategies and marketing,” Casper said.

She said the Dodgeville apparel retailer offers flexible shift hours, and employees who work through the peak holiday season can get year-round perks that include an employee discount and use of the wellness center and back-up child care services.

“Our employees continue to be Lands’ End’s best tool for recruiting. Approximately 25 percent of our applicants are referred by our employees,” Casper said.

Lands’ End also adds about 100 customer care employees who work from home when call volume is high, and provides free bus rides to 100 UW-Platteville students who join the company’s seasonal workforce.

The company has about 6,000 employees.

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