SARANAC LAKE — A manager at Aldi in Saranac Lake says the grocery store may need to close indefinitely starting in September if she can’t hire a handful of new employees in the next few weeks.
Store Manager Melanie Fullum said several employees are moving away or going back to school in the fall, leaving the store with a staff so small that she doesn’t think they’ll be able to stay open.
Fullum said the issue has been compounded by a tough hiring environment.
The store’s always had a low staffing issue, she said, but since the coronavirus pandemic started, it’s gotten worse. In the past year, it has become nearly unbearable, Fullum said.
“We’ll really be hurting in September because then I lose all of my help,” Fullum said. “As of Sept. 1, I will have five full-time employees left. I need 25 to run the business correctly. … I can’t run a business with five full-time employees.”
She said either the remaining employees could work open to close, every day, with no days off; the store could change its hours — which she said would not be good for its customers — or it could close for a bit and regroup. She said she needs around five new employees to get over the bump and manage to stay open.
Fullum said she’s been with Aldi for 10 years and managing the Saranac Lake location since 2018. She likes the business a lot and now that she has her own store, she wants to see it successful.
“I care about the people and I care about the community. That’s the main reason I haven’t just dropped my keys and walked out the door,” Fullum said. “I know that a lot of families, especially the ones with kids, rely on my store.”
Saranac Lake is in the middle of a busy season for tourism.
On Thursday, there were four people working in the store. Jean French was running the register and scanning items quickly. Still, the line of customers waiting to check out got backed up to the milk coolers around 40 feet away, so Quillan Crowe left restocking to jump on another register.
Cammie Marshall described the recent flood of customers and low number of people working at the store as she stocked produce.
“Insane. It’s been so busy because everybody’s in town,” Marshall said.
She’s been working there for three years, and said she has stuck around — even when the job gets stressful because of the low number of employees — because of the pay and the benefits the store offers. Her health insurance is covered by Aldi. She also said Fullum is a big reason for her staying.
“She’s been a great friend,” Marshall said. “Just amazing. So supportive.”
But Marshall is one of the people leaving in August. She is moving to Potsdam with her boyfriend. She feels bad to leave, but she said she has to continue on with her life.
Marshall said the store is so busy because customers say they love shopping there. Aldi recently placed first in the Enterprise “Best of the Mountains” awards for grocery stores in the region. It is a cheaper option for people on limited incomes, Marshall pointed out. Fullum said Aldi keeps its prices low through having efficient staff and selling products through its own warehouses and distribution chains.
If Aldi closed, “It would be upsetting for people,” Marshall said.
“If you would like to see the store stay open, work here,” Marshall said.
French has been working at Aldi for a year-and-a-half. She recently bought a house and is starting to make payments on her new home. French said if her workplace closed because it can’t find enough employees, it would make her life hard.
“I’m hoping that it doesn’t go that way,” she said. “That would definitely hurt.”
Fullum said she is working 80-hour weeks herself. She’s the only manager right now, as the other one is out with an injury.
“I have two kids at home that I haven’t seen in two weeks,” she said. “I’ve had to pull all of my vacation time. I’m on an 80-hour week this week, so sleep isn’t a thing. I can’t tell you the last time I sat down for three meals. … It’s rough.”
She said she spends her lunch breaks at other businesses looking for employees who want more part-time work.
As a manager, she’s not supposed to be on register or working freight.
“That’s all that I’m doing because there’s no one else to do it,” she said.
But it takes her away from her job and her managerial duties take a hit as a result. Fullum said her employees are burned out and she’s at her “wit’s end.”
“It’s not unmanageable but it’s getting there,” Crowe said.
He said the close team of people working there together makes things easier.
“It’s been difficult but what staff we do have here, we generally pull together and get the job done,” French said. “We’re pretty much a family.”
Crowe has been working at Aldi for around four months. He said he started working there for the pay and the benefits.
“Also, just the management is nice,” Crowe said. “They seem like they’ve got their act together more than other places.”
He said he enjoys it a lot, but he’s leaving for a job in his field of engineering.
The store offers competitive pay, starting at $17.50 per hour. Fullum is hoping to get that increased in the next month.
Fullum said she could hire 30 people any day, but few qualified people are applying. So far, in the month of July, she said she’s had two full-time and one part-time applicants for jobs. All have been disqualified.
And when people take the job, they often are not staying for long. Fullum said she’s hired around 10 people who on their first day said “this isn’t for me” after realizing how fast-paced the work is.
“This is a hard job. You have to lift things. You can’t sit on register all day,” Fullum said. “But at this point, if I could hire someone to sit on register all day, I would let them.”
No one wants to do the expected work, Fullum said.
“They realize it’s a difficult job,” Marshall said, of the people who leave. “We don’t just ring. We do everything. Everything is very fast-paced here because it’s Aldi and we’re based on efficiency and low prices.”
Employees stock shelves, work the register, empty delivery trucks at night and keep the store clean. Fullum said she wants a clean store.
On Wednesday, employees put up signs asking customers to be patient at checkout.
“If nothing else, you might have to wait in line, but the floors are clean,” Fullum said.
Fullum said despite the stress, she keeps a “low drama” workplace. She said she treats employees like family and tries to keep morale high by doing things like making them pancakes.
In recent weeks, she’s had Aldi employees from Schenectady and Albany coming up to keep her store open while they live in hotel rooms in Lake Placid. These employees are getting paid a lot of money to work here while their home stores are under renovation, Fullum said, but they’ll be leaving in August.