SARANAC LAKE — An Aldi official in Saranac Lake said the grocery store may have to close indefinitely from September if it cannot hire a handful of new employees in the coming weeks.
Store manager Melanie Fullum said several employees are moving or returning to school in the fall, leaving the store with such a small staff that she doesn’t think they will be able to stay open.
Fullum said the problem has been compounded by a difficult hiring environment.
The store has always had a small staffing problem, she said, but since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the situation has gotten worse. Over the past year, it’s become almost unbearable, Fullum said.
“We’ll be in really bad shape in September because then I’ll lose all my help,” Fullum said. “As of September 1, I will have five full-time employees left. I need 25 to run the business properly. … I can’t run a business with five full-time employees.
She said either the remaining employees could work from opening to closing, every day, with no days off; the store could change its hours – which she says would not be good for its customers – or it could close for a bit and regroup. She said she needed about five new employees to ride out the bump and successfully stay open.
Fullum said she has worked for Aldi for 10 years and has managed the Saranac Lake site since 2018. She really likes the business and now that she has her own store, she wants to see it succeed.
“I care about people and I care about the community. That’s the main reason I didn’t just drop my keys and walk through the door,” Fullum said. “I know a lot of families, especially those with kids, rely on my store.”
Saranac Lake is in the midst of a busy tourist season.
On a Thursday earlier this month, four people were working in the store. Jean French managed the register and quickly digitized the articles. Still, the line of customers waiting to check out was backed up to milk coolers about 40 feet away, so Quillan Crowe left restocking to jump on another register.
Cammie Marshall described the recent influx of customers and the low number of people working in the store as she stocked products.
“Crazy. It’s been so busy because everyone’s in town,” Marshall said.
She has worked there for three years and said she has stayed – even when the job becomes stressful due to low staffing – because of the salary and benefits offered by the store. His health insurance is covered by Aldi. She also said Fullum was a big reason for her stay.
“She’s been a great friend,” Marshall said. “Just amazing. So much support.
But Marshall is among those leaving in August. She moves to Potsdam with her boyfriend. She feels bad about leaving, but she says she has to get on with her life.
Marshall said the store was so busy because customers say they like to shop there. Aldi recently placed first in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise “Best of the Mountains” awards for area grocery stores. It’s a cheaper option for people with limited incomes, Marshall pointed out. Fullum said Aldi keeps prices low by 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 want the store to stay open, work here,” Marshall said.
French has worked at Aldi for a year and a half. She recently bought a house and is starting to make payments for her new home. French said if his workplace closed because he couldn’t find enough employees, it would make his life difficult.
“I hope it doesn’t turn out like that,” she said. “It would certainly hurt.”
Fullum said she works 80 hours a week herself. She is the only manager at the moment, because the other is injured.
“I have two kids at home that I haven’t seen in two weeks,” she said. “I had to withdraw all 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 hard.
She said she spends her lunch breaks at other companies looking for employees who want more part-time work.
As a manager, she is not supposed to be registered or work in freight.
“It’s all I do because there’s no one else to do it,” she said.
But this takes him away from his job and his managerial duties take a hit. Fullum said her employees were exhausted and she was 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 makes it easy.
“It’s been tough, but whatever staff we have here, we usually pull together and get the job done,” French said. “We’re pretty much a family.”
Crowe has worked at Aldi for about four months. He said he started working there for pay and benefits.
“Also, just the management is nice,” Crowe said. “They seem to have more action than other places.”
He said he liked it a lot, but he was leaving for a job in his engineering field.
The store offers a competitive salary, starting at $17.50 per hour. Fullum hopes that will increase next month.
Fullum said she could hire 30 people anytime, but few qualified people are applying. So far in July, she said she has had two full-time and one part-time applicants for jobs. All were disqualified.
And when people take the job, they often don’t stay long. Fullum said she hired about 10 people who on the first day said “it’s not for me” after realizing how fast the job was.
” This is a difficult work. You have to lift things. You can’t sit on the ledger all day,” Fullum said. “But at this point, if I could hire someone to sit on the register all day, I would let them.”
Nobody wants to do the job expected, Fullum said.
“They realize it’s hard work,” Marshall said of the people leaving. “We don’t just ring the bell. We do it all. Everything goes really fast here because it’s Aldi and we’re all about efficiency and low prices.
Employees stock the shelves, take care of the cash register, empty the delivery trucks at night and keep the store clean. Fullum said she wanted 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 that despite the stress, she kept a “low drama” workplace. She said she treated the employees like family and tried to keep their spirits up by doing things like making pancakes for them.
In recent weeks, Aldi employees from Schenectady and Albany have come to keep his store open while they live in hotel rooms in Lake Placid. Those employees are being paid big bucks to work here while their home stores are being renovated, Fullum said, but they will be leaving in August.