“Help wanted.” It’s not roadside Sharpie scrawl on discarded cardboard, but corporate lettering on official promotional signage nestled among holiday decorations. Businesses are hiring, but just for “the season.” It’s almost hard to remember that ‘Black Friday’ is about profit margins for the year rather than risking a black eye from an early morning brawl for the latest “it” toy or heavily discounted television. Cramming in the need to make it financially for the year in a matter of weeks is big business that means extra help at the checkout counter, the customer service help desk, on the stock floor, or driving the delivery truck. These temporary hires are supposedly what help keep us consumers happy, and they’re the elves that keep Santa (and CEOs) in business. All of this extra movement of people and goods is part of the “bustle” of our holidays. And this year, the labor market needs a lot more workers to make the holidays happen.
But there is quite the bustle here at UMD too. Close to 30% of our Workforce Clients who have an over-the-table job are currently involved in this “seasonal work.” Wake-up times are set throughout the early morning hours for workers to make their way from the homeless shelter to work. While they must skip hot breakfast served in the Café at 8am, clients can pick up to-go lunch bags or reserve a late plate for dinner before boarding GoTriangle’s earliest buses. And for some, those meals are extra precious when they have to spend what little they have to catch an Uber because bus schedules or routes don’t meet their needs.
While clients are fatigued by early rising or working double or even triple shifts, many are also energized by these opportunities. Excited to finally land a job after working on résumés and applications with our Workforce Development team, they are hoping that this temporary work gives them a chance to prove their worth or establish much-needed work history. For others, it is a difficult step down from once holding a steady job that gave meaning and identity but is crucial to getting a foot in the door. At a minimum, such an audition can enable them to become “qualified” for entry-level work, rather than being dismissed as “overqualified.”
But all of our clients are left to wonder what the end of the season will bring. Was all the hustle and bustle, grinning and grunting worth their sweat? Did less than $15 an hour working around the clock bring in what they need to be able to exit into permanent housing? How will they manage the money they’ve earned, weighing the desire to participate in the holidays by spending money on themselves or others vs. saving for a future that feels distant and unsustainable? Will they get a chance to remain on the job after they’ve proven themselves, or were they just expendable parts needed temporarily to power an outsized commercial machine—a machine which we are often complicit in with or without our awareness?
These questions are uncomfortable to sit with. And certainly that much more difficult to square with vulnerable people eager for employment and hoping to find dignity in their work. Imagine and dream with us about what a hopeful future could look like. Can you envision a world where more individuals could secure a job or pursue a career that excited them beyond a paycheck? A society where all workers felt assured that the money they brought home was “enough” to provide for the basics? What changes and priority shifting would it take for us to make strides toward an economy where all workers were encouraged to reach their full potential? Is this even a shared dream? Difficult questions to ponder. But they’re definitely on our mind this holiday season.