Low-paying jobs begging for workers Retailers, restaurants see shortage of people taking $6-$10 an hour

'You're almost at a crisis'

Higher pay, transit, incentives offered to lure more applicants

March 30, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

For a $6.50-an-hour job, counter duty at a Bagel Bin outlet seems like good work if you can get it: The Howard County restaurant chain offers health insurance, paid vacation, tuition reimbursement -- even a 401(k).

The trouble is, not enough workers want it.

Throughout affluent Howard, retail stores, blue-collar employers and restaurants are scrambling to fill $6- to $10-an-hour jobs to which county residents are not exactly flocking.

The Bagel Bin's benefits -- according to regional economists and economic development experts -- are unheard of in the Baltimore area for nonsalaried positions. But other Howard businesses have been bumping up their wages. And more than a dozen county companies are using a shuttle service to bring workers to Howard from other jurisdictions.

"You're almost at a crisis situation," says John Schulze, vice president of Columbia-based Pizza Hut of Maryland. A member of the Howard County Economic Indicators Committee, he also advocates building more affordable housing in the wealthy county.

Howard's retail wages -- the highest in the Baltimore region -- are rising. But, even at $312 a week, that's only about $16,000 a year -- hardly a huge sum in a county where rent can hit $1,000 a month, and single-family houses sell for an average of $203,000.

Howard County is an acute case of a national ailment. Suburban employers often find themselves too far from willing workers. Over the past year, 26 major corporations -- ranging from McDonald's to J. C. Penney -- have formed the "Employer Group," a national organization aimed at finding better ways to attract and keep low-wage workers.

But the Bagel Bin's incentives surprise even the most seasoned of labor analysts.

"Oh, my God. That's incredible," says Robert Riva, an economist with the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University. "The fact that you're combining tuition reimbursement and health insurance with a nonsalary position is really strange to me. That, I've never heard of."

More Howard County businesses may follow suit.

"I have a feeling the bagel shop is going to be the beginning of a trend," says Vince De Santi, a job placement specialist at Howard Community College's Business Training Center.

The Bagel Bin incentives help keep 22-year-old Jeremy Smith serving up bagels at the Wilde Lake Village Center. Having just passed his six-month anniversary at the shop, he recently signed up for the company HMO health care plan.

"Every little bit helps," says Smith, who describes himself as a debt-laden student.

Bagel Bin owner Steve Girard would like to find more Jeremy Smiths in Howard County.

"There's a lot of parents who don't want their kids getting their hands dirty. It's as simple as that," he says. "We live in a rich county. I don't know whether to offer more money or offer more incentives."

Other business are offering more money.

In September, as the Home Place store prepared to open in the new Long Gate retail center north of Columbia, store operations manager Diana Pabon planned to hire 150 workers to stock the store. About 65 of the workers would remain after the store opened.

She posted fliers throughout Columbia and Ellicott City, advertising $6- to $6.25-an-hour positions. Such wages, Pabon says, had attracted plenty of workers six months ago when she worked at a Ross Dress For Less department store in Rockville.

And just before the Home Place was to open, Pabon stationed herself inside a mobile home outside the Home Place for two weeks -- waiting for eager workers to come. What of the 150 workers? "We didn't get anywhere close to that," she says.

Pabon increased wages to $7.25 an hour, hired 38 workers and filled the remaining slots with relatively costly temporary-agency workers. Now, six months later, Pabon says she finally has a full staff of about 65 workers.

At the new Target store on Route 175 in east Columbia, Mike Price is having similar problems. He says he filled positions more easily at a Target in suburban Chicago. In Howard County, Target at times has taken on the role of personal-growth trainer.

"A lot of kids that come here don't have to work," says Price, a merchandise manager. "Their parents just want them to do it for responsibility."

Price says he has not had to increase Target's wages -- which he declines to outline -- but he acknowledges he has problems simply finding enough daytime workers during school hours.

His troubles come as no surprise to Richard Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. Target may have to boost wages or set up a transit system, Story says.

In many ways, Howard's labor shortage is a product of its success. Consider these county statistics:

The median household income last year was $64,000, the highest in Maryland.

Unemployment is 2.6 percent, compared with the national average of 5.9 percent.

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