In tight job market, Mall of America goes out of its way to hire, keep workers

Jess Nelson, MOA case manager for Oasis For Youth, walks through Nickelodeon Universe talking with young employees.
Jess Nelson, MOA case manager for Oasis For Youth, walks through Nickelodeon Universe talking with young employees. TNS

Managers at the Mall of America can often tell when an employee doesn’t have a good place to sleep.

Sometimes, a worker shows up hours before his shift, a sign he doesn’t have somewhere else to go. Other times, an employee might not make it in because she stayed somewhere too far away or didn’t have enough money for bus fare. Or perhaps an employee opens up after being asked about a wrinkled shirt.

“They come in and say, ‘Oh, I just slept in a car last night,’” said Natasha Holt, manager of the mall’s amusement park.

The Mall of America is a world-famous symbol of American abundance, with four-plus miles of stores, rides and spectacles. But it’s having trouble finding people to work in today’s tight labor market, leading its management to go to extraordinary lengths to hire and keep workers.

The latest step: bringing in a nonprofit agency to assist workers struggling at the margins, including those who are homeless or nearly so. “There are folks who have some challenges getting work and maintaining work,” said Sue Amundson, the mall’s human resources director. “How can we as an organization really support them?”

Keeping every employee is critical. Just the mall, not counting its stores, has 200 unfilled jobs, about one-sixth of its 1,200 positions. The amusement park, Nickelodeon Universe, is so short-staffed that mall executives sometimes pitch in by running rides. The mall’s nearly 500 retailers have hundreds of other openings.

Across the country, managers in offices, restaurants, factories and farms are having trouble filling jobs. Minnesota’s unemployment rate, at 3.6 percent, has been better than the nation’s for several years. And with more baby boomers leaving the workforce than young people coming in, the labor pressure is likely to continue until the next downturn.

In the last year, the Mall of America bumped its base pay to $9.50 for part-time workers, 50 cents above the state’s minimum wage. Ride operators now make $11 an hour. Even so, Amundson, who has been with the mall for 12 years, said this is the hardest its managers and recruiters have ever had to work to fill positions.

“Every year up until last year, we were able to fill our positions for the summer season,” Amundson said. “Last year was the first year we didn’t. That was the light bulb for me.”

In recent weeks, the mall’s leaders reached out to the Step-Up program of the city of Minneapolis and AchieveMpls, a nonprofit organization tied to the Minneapolis Public Schools, to attract more teenagers for summer jobs. And it has forged a partnership with Oasis for Youth, an area nonprofit that works with homeless youth in the southern suburbs, an effort that mall executives think can become a national model for retaining employees and creating stability for them.

Safe space

Since she came on board as Oasis’ case manager at the mall two months ago, Jess Nelson has been sitting in on orientation programs for new employees. She has been walking around Nickelodeon Universe and stopping by the daily briefings before shifts start to introduce herself and hand her card to workers. She stresses that her office is a confidential, safe space that is separate from the mall’s human resources office.

“If you know anybody who needs help, my office is right downstairs,” she told a concessions stand operator on a recent day as she was making the rounds, raising her voice to compete with the roar of nearby rides.

In the cabinets of her office, Nelson keeps bus tokens, gift cards for meals and groceries, and toiletries such as toothpaste and body wash for anyone who may need them.

A couple of weeks ago, a young woman who recently started as a ride operator stopped by. The employee, who has been living in a homeless shelter for months, didn’t have enough money for a Metro Pass to get to and from work. Nelson handed her a temporary one to help tide her over.

Another new employee came to Nelson for help cashing her first paycheck. No one would do it because the woman didn’t have a bank account or even proper identification. Nelson offered to drive her to a Driver and Vehicle Service’s office to get a state ID card.

One young woman asked for options as she prepares to leave a transitional housing program. A young man said he was on edge about the possibility of getting kicked out of his family’s house again.

“A lot of folks are sort of temporarily staying with family,” Nelson said. “It’s not atypical for youth to use whatever resources are out there to avoid shelters if they can, couch hopping or staying with family. But that can be overcrowded and stressful.”

Janette Smrcka, the mall’s IT director, was at church last year when she heard a discussion about youth homelessness in the suburbs. It drove her to find a way the mall could help. She reached out to Oasis.

The timing was fortuitous. Nicole Mills had just come on board as the first executive director of the nearly 6-year-old organization, which operates a drop-in center for homeless youth at a church.

“I had daydreamed about how to connect to the mall,” Mills said. “Then one day they literally called and they were like, ‘Hey, we’re the mall. Is there anything we can do?’”

In the last year, Oasis has found more young people are turning to its services, aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds who live or work in Bloomington, the suburb where the mall is located, and nearby communities. Since 2013, the number of visits to Oasis has increased 74 percent. Last year, it served 215 people.

A number of Oasis’ clients have worked at the mall. And there have been a handful of instances in which Oasis case workers intervened to help save their jobs.

Place to crash

For the young adults it works with, finding a place to crash for the night can consume a lot of time and energy.

Adijatu Lafiaji, a 20-year-old community college student, started showing up at Oasis’ drop-in center a few months ago. She already had a job at the mall at Forever 21, a trendy apparel store for young women.

But a frequent source of tension was trying to arrange her work schedule around the cousin she was living with in Savage. The cousin often gave her rides to and from the bus stop or the mall. At one point, she had to cut back her workdays. When other issues emerged, Lafiaji decided to move out of her cousin’s home.

“Things just weren’t going well anymore, so I was not comfortable living there,” she said, vaguely mentioning a big fight.

Oasis helped her find an apartment in Bloomington and will help pay the rent for the first several months until she gets on her feet. Still, she needed another part-time job to pay the bills on her own. At Oasis’ drop-in center, where she stocks up on toiletries and underwear, Nelson told her about other job openings at the mall.

They brushed up her resume and she applied to be a ride operator. Within the span of a week, she landed that job and moved into the apartment.

Her new home is still sparse. But her face lights up when she talks about it.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s nice, it’s really quiet. Peaceful.”

And the bus stop is just down the street – and the mall a 15-minute ride away.