Kohls

The fiery immigration debate and the race to fill retail jobs are both heating up — but it’s not clear that the policy at the border will help stores fill their payrolls anytime soon.

Even though the fight over immigration has grown all the more bitter during the Trump administration, with pictures of migrant children being ripped away from their parents taking over the public imagination, it is a long-standing area of concern for fashion.

Despite waves of brick-and-mortar closures, retailers are looking for workers — to sharpen their in-store experience, to staff up for the holidays and to fulfill online orders.

Kohl’s Corp. turned heads by putting out its call for temporary holiday workers this week. “We are hiring seasonal associates earlier than ever to ensure our teams are fully staffed, trained and ready to support peak shopping seasons,” said Ryan Festerling, Kohl’s executive vice president, human resources.

Retailers typically put out their calls for seasonal workers in September. But unemployment is at an 18-year low of 3.8 percent, retail wages are rising and competition for workers is getting stiffer.

As Kohl’s hung out the “Help Wanted” sign, the National Retail Federation, one of the industry’s key voices in Washington, D.C., was bemoaning the state of immigration policy and the House’s failure to pass a compromise immigration package on Wednesday. The lobbyist has called the immigration system “broken, unworkable and in desperate need of reform.”

Issues on the table range from how to treat the so-called Dreamers who were brought into the country illegally and received a measure of legitimacy under President Obama to how retailers obtain H1B visas for high-tech workers and how companies need to verify the legal status of employees.

Besides industry-wide support for Dreamers, stores and designers want both access to visas to bring in highly skilled workers and also a base of people ready to take jobs as greeters, sales associates and in warehouses.

“Retail has 500,000 unfilled jobs at the moment,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the NRF. “The economy is at such a low level of unemployment that every employer in the high-skilled and low-skilled spaces, in the finance services industry, in the transportation industry, every industry is looking for people. Immigration is one solution to the employee crunch.”

He also pointed the group’s Rise Up training program, which works with 30 retailers, as another solution.

“These are all things that contribute to keeping the economy growing at pace that is sustainable,” French said.

People who come into the country legally and get jobs contribute to the economy by purchasing goods, paying taxes and so on.

“We’re dismayed that Congress and the White House can’t seem to figure out how to get a strong pro-growth immigration reform bill in a bipartisan way,” French said. “They’re going to need a couple more attempts to pass elements of it, we’re going to see a bill after [the Congressional] recess on family separation.”

Despite closures, department stores in May had 42,800 more workers on the payrolls than a year earlier, while apparel and accessories specialty stores added 38,600 positions, general merchandise stores added 21,300 workers and non-store retailers brought another 8,800 on board. All together, the four categories added 111,500 workers to employ a total of 5.1 million.

John Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., said Kohl’s early call for seasonal workers was a sign of the times.

“I have not seen a big retailer announce so early,” Challenger said. “That speaks to the need for an the recognition that they better get their people in place now.

“The pool of labor that’s looking for work is thinning out,” he said. “They’re worried they’re not going to find the people they need, they’re going to have to train people up a little more than they would have. This is a wake up call for other retailers who don’t want to get caught. This is also potentially a very strong season for retailers, more people are working, more people have been working for a longer period of time, steady in their jobs, so they have spending power.”

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