After being out of work for nearly four months, what 50-year-old Norma Ramirez of Glendale most wants for Christmas is a paycheck, specifically from a seasonal sales position at JCPenney during the retailer's busiest time of year.
"I want this job a lot," Ramirez said as she filled out an application earlier this month at a computer kiosk inside the Glendale Galleria's JCPenney store.
The former bus driver, who job-hunts nearly every day, may not know until the week before Christmas whether she has landed a position. In fact, the holidays may not bring much cheer to Ramirez or to other Southern Californians looking for work. When the big shopping season kicks off Friday, many employers will have only modestly beefed up their ranks.
Although stores operating in Southern California and across the country say they are taking on seasonal help, the number of applicants is outpacing the number of jobs. Those who do get hired for the short term, economists and others say, may find it tougher than ever to stay on after the holidays.
Even as the U.S. economy starts picking up steam -- the government reported Tuesday that the nation's gross domestic product grew at an 8.2% annual rate in the third quarter -- American employers in general aren't increasing their hiring.
The National Retail Federation, which represents 100 retail associations, is expecting a 5.7% boost in holiday sales this year, yet many merchants aren't hiring any more help than usual. Rather, they probably will have employees work longer shifts, said Washington-based spokeswoman Ellen Tolley.
Nationwide last year, retailers added about 750,000 workers to their payrolls in November and December, a 3.2% increase over 2001, she said.
This year, she expects an increase of 3.5% to 4%.
"If sales are up, employee hours will increase. If traffic is up, employee hours will increase," Tolley said. "If traffic and sales are down, employees will be working less."
In California, retailers added about 100,000 jobs in November and December of 2000 and 2001. But last year, the total holiday hiring slipped to about 65,000, according to the state's Employment Development Department.
And this year, retail hiring around the state has been flat, the state department said.
Although general merchandise and home improvement sellers in the state have added jobs, the increases have been offset by losses among specialty retailers of sporting goods, books and electronics and appliances.
John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., said retailers nationwide were taking a cautious approach to adding holiday staff.
"I think employers are preparing for a slight increase in hiring but don't want to go overboard until they see 'the whites of their eyes,' the customers in their stores and actually purchasing," Challenger said.
On the other hand, retailers need to be wary of being understaffed and turning away customers who are frustrated by a lack of good service, shopping experts say.
"There can be a trade-off for certain retailers where customers have an expectation of a certain level of service," said Aubie Goldenberg, a retail consultant with Ernst & Young in Los Angeles.
"A lack of staffing isn't going to hurt Target in the same way it would hurt a retailer like Nordstrom."
Seattle-based Nordstrom Inc. said it would hire "slightly more" workers nationwide, spokeswoman Deniz Anders said. But in California, hiring will be about equal to last year.
Target Corp.'s Hayward, Calif.-based Mervyn's chain plans to hire about 10,000 holiday workers, about 40 people at each of its 267 stores. That number has held steady for the last four years, Mervyn's spokeswoman Melinda McRae said.
Many merchants have reported an increase in job applications this holiday season, with more from students and unemployed adults hoping to supplement their income with a second job.
"They're seeing more applications this year than they have in many years," said Tolley, of the National Retail Federation.
This year, Plano, Texas-based J.C. Penney Co. is accepting applications for seasonal help at its in-store kiosks, on a 24-hour phone line or on the company's Web site, which sends the paperwork directly to a Penney store.
Penney's, which has about 228,000 employees, normally will add 10% to 15% more staff at each store, spokeswoman Christi Byrd Smith said.
At a store as big as the Glendale Penney's, which has about 280 workers, the company might add even more, she said.
So far, Penney's phone applications are up 5% over last year and walk-in applicants are up "significantly," Smith said.
Although the number of strong applicants is up from last year, the number of seasonal hires will not be, Penney's said.
And the jobs that are available may not be what Norma Ramirez and others are looking for.
The additional staff for this year will be concentrated in supporting roles, including stockroom help, cashiers, sales floor replenishment teams and extra help in straightening up the merchandise after waves of customers mess it up.
KB Toys relaunched its annual nationwide campaign for holiday-season help, which doubles the mall-based toy seller's ranks from 15,000 to 30,000, KB spokesman John Reilly said.
"Elves wanted," reads signs inside a KB store in the Glendale Galleria. "Now accepting applications for seasonal employment."
But the closely held retailer, based in Pittsfield, Mass., also is keeping staffing levels even with last year's numbers. And the applicants keep coming, the company said.
"Because of the way unemployment is, there is a little larger pool to choose from," Reilly said. "For the most part, we don't have trouble finding people."
Even some retailers that have been posting the strongest results are taking a more restrained approach to hiring. Industry-based teen retailer Hot Topic Inc., for example, said it would have about the same number of workers in its stores this year as last, Chief Financial Officer Jim McGinty said.
Should retailers get hit with a wave of shoppers, they know they can beef up their ranks without much trouble, Challenger said.
"They feel they can gear up quickly," he said. "There are a lot of people out of work."
Not all retailers are planning for a lean season.
Gap Inc., the nation's largest specialty retailer, expects to boost hiring by almost one-third over last year in some Gap stores, adding more than 20,000 holiday workers in that division, spokeswoman Jordan Benjamin said.
The San Francisco-based retailer also has increased the training hours of new workers, in some cases by 30%.
"There's more of an emphasis on customer engagement and providing exemplary levels of service for our shoppers during the holiday season," Benjamin said.
And Los Angeles-based Forever 21 Inc., a chain that caters to trendy teens and young women, intends to have about 5% more workers in its stores this holiday season than last year in anticipation of greater demand, Chief Financial Officer Larry Meyer said.
"We really feel business is stronger relative to the same time last year," he said.
"So we want to make sure we match our product with great service and, hopefully, higher consumer demand."
At Penney's, Ramirez struggled with job application questions about how she learns best and how well she is able to do multiple tasks at once. When she finished, a Penney's employee thanked her for applying and said she might get a response in 30 days. If she doesn't hear, the Penney's employee told her, she is welcome to reapply.
Although she hasn't had much luck in her job search so far, Ramirez says she tries to stay positive.
"If you're a good worker, you can find a job wherever you go," she said. "I'm not afraid. I like to learn new things."
Times staff writer Don Lee contributed to this report.