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Rochester firms adjust to tight labor market

Workers left their jobs in droves over the past two years as the coronavirus pandemic upended life, leaving many employers short staffed and competing for fewer applicants, but firms are adjusting to the new realities and refocusing efforts to attract and retain employees.

Despite what’s been dubbed the Great Resignation by some, jobless claims in the U.S. are near the lowest levels in a half century as demand for workers remains strong. Like the rest of the nation, Rochester employers are feeling the effects of the competitive labor market but applying both tried and true methods and more creative means to maintain staffing and even grow.

Increased wages and benefits have been a common theme for employers seeking to recruit and retain staff, but organizations also point to the effectiveness of less traditional moves like providing flexible scheduling, focusing on workplace culture and recognizing employee efforts.


The tightening labor market has been “especially challenging for Tops Markets,” said Kathy Liou, human resources manager at the regional supermarket. Liou said hiring has become an “everyday management activity,” with the company seeking to capture applicants as soon as they apply.

“We have found that if we waited more than a few days to connect with applicants, that they may already have employment elsewhere,” Liou said. “This has caused us to spend more time and effort on staffing and certainly thinking outside the box.”

Liou said all areas of Tops’ business have been impacted by the national labor shortage, from retail stores to distribution centers and the corporate offices. Retail stores have especially struggled as the company seeks to maintain the number of workers necessary to provide the care customers have come to know.

Vendors and partners have also experienced shortages, Liou said, and many are seeing the same challenges and having to make concessions at times.

While many employers typically don’t hire workers younger than 18, Liou said one advantage for Tops is it has always hired employees as young as 14. She noted that has given the company the ability to “put the staffing puzzle together in a time when there were simply not enough pieces.”

Tops has shifted some recruitment efforts to increase success, Liou said, including changing the way the company connects with applicants. Rather than traditional in-person interviews, Tops is conducting phone and/or virtual interviews with some candidates, allowing the company to connect with applicants faster, interviewing them and potentially offering employment the same day they’ve applied.

“We are also a growing and dynamic organization which is appealing to candidates who are seeking opportunities to further their careers,” Liou said. “In order to increase recruitment and retention at Tops Markets, we have emphasized and allowed for greater scheduling flexibility to make working for us more convenient based on whether the associates are students, have other full-time employment and/or to just better fit their lives.”

Rich Pulvino, corporate communications manager at ESL Federal Credit Union, said despite feeling the impacts of a tightening labor market, the organization has been able to continue its recent growth trajectory. ESL currently has grown to about 920 employees after ending 2021 with a little less than 900.


“Like so many organizations, we have adjusted some of our efforts,” Pulvino said. “We’re dedicating more resources to recruiting new employees, sharing the story of ESL and inviting those to learn more about our culture that has made us a Great Place to Work 11 times since 2010.”

ESL has used open houses and recruitment webinars to share employee stories and provide prospective employees with an inside view of the credit union. Pulvino said while this is not a new development, ESL strives to provide a superior experience for its employees, something that’s necessary to attract and retain staff.

“We listen to our employees through a variety of tools and surveys and follow trends in the marketplace,” he said, noting several changes have been implemented that include moving to hybrid work for positions where it’s feasible, off-cycle pay increases for nearly three quarters of employees, increased cash awards to employees who refer candidates who are hired and enhancements to health care benefits and wellness programs.


Karen Zandi, president and CEO of Mary Cariola Center, said the education and life skills center has been impacted by the narrowing labor market along with others in the nonprofit sector. Recruitment efforts have increased through advertising, branding and visibility to show the rewarding and important work that goes on at the organization’s school and homes.

To boost recruitment and retention, Mary Cariola has been increasing wages, especially for front line care staff, implementing sign-on bonuses for certain positions like registered nurses and providing additional resources for employees.

“We have, throughout COVID, focused on the emotional well-being of our staff, acknowledging individual and family challenges and the need for time off,” Zandi said. “And we have had a mental health counselor on site one day a week since we returned to school.”

Mary Cariola residences needed to increase staffing during the coronavirus pandemic day due to adult day programs not yet returning to full capacity, Zandi said, noting it has put additional burden and expense on the facilities.

In addition to increased starting wages for all direct care staff, Zandi said Mary Cariola implemented more opportunities for employee recognition and thanks. For residence workers, Zandi said Mary Cariola implemented COVID stipends, differentials for some shifts and celebrated and thanked staff with spontaneous treats, catered meals and extra “thank yous.”

“While extra pay is always appreciated, we believe many of the non-compensation related aspects convey to our staff truly how important they are to us, and that we care about them and their families and are truly appreciated for all they give back to our students and residents,” Zandi said.

Another important undertaking at Mary Cariola, which Zandi said started long before the coronavirus pandemic, is a program called Grow Our Own, that partners with area colleges and makes scholarship money available for certifications in various fields and continuing education for bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees.

“We believe this is a major recruitment tool as it allows new and existing staff to really grow with us,” Zandi said.

Matthew Reitz is a Rochester-area freelance writer.


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