NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Planning on boosting your income this holiday season by grabbing a temporary job in retail? Take a number.
Retail employers, who usually boost their workforce ahead of the year-end shopping frenzy, have suffered dismal sales this year and are gearing up for a rough holiday season. With staffing levels already down, there will likely be a noticeable decline in openings for seasonal workers.
At the same time, workers who have seen their incomes drop because of layoffs, salary cuts and shorter work weeks are depending on extra income during the holidays.
The result: More workers competing for fewer jobs.
Although 62% of retailers are seeing more seasonal applicants this year, 40% are hiring fewer seasonal workers, according to a recent survey by Philadelphia-based consulting firm Hay Group.
"There's going to be extraordinary competition this year for these jobs," said John Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Jenny Posner Brown-Shern, 37, doesn't want to get left out in the cold. She has a full-time job as a social worker. Her husband, Joel, has a good job as a fraud analyst for an office supply company, but his overtime was cut this year and so were some of Brown-Shern's benefits.
"We were dependent on that overtime," she said. Now, they are both trying to find seasonal jobs to fill that gap, and hopefully buy some Christmas presents for their children.
"He's looking into security in the evenings, maybe at a bar or bank. I've just started to fill out applications for retail," she said.
Brown-Shern says she has applied to a number of stores near her home in Columbia, S.C., including Pier 1 and Bath & Body Works, hoping to land a position, but the prospects are grim.
"Neither of us have heard back about anything," she said. "It'll be a sad Christmas for my kids, I guess."
With record numbers of unemployed and underemployed workers, hopefuls like Brown-Shern are facing serious competition this year.
Last year was also a terrible year for seasonal hiring. Retail employment grew by just 384,000 from October through December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was the lowest holiday hiring figure since 1989 and around half that of 2007, when retailers added 721,000 workers during the holiday months.
With low sales expectations again this year, the majority of employers are planning on hiring the same number of seasonal workers as last year or fewer, the Hay Group survey said.
One of the biggest holiday employers, Target, is one of the retailers cutting back. "We are anticipating a reduction in the need for seasonal hiring this year," said Heather Christensen, a spokeswoman for the company.
In 2008, Christensen said Target hired over 62,000 holiday workers for its U.S. stores.
Christensen attributed the decline to soft sales and fewer turnovers among Target's permanent employees. The company is also offering existing employees the option of taking on additional hours, which further reduces the need for temporary workers over the holidays.
For those depending on a holiday job this year, there are some signs of hope. A number of large retailers, including Macy's and Toys R Us, say they will keep their seasonal hiring levels on par with last year. A few others, like Best Buy, say they will even boost the number of hires this year.
But overall the outlook is pretty dismal, and until hiring and retail spending pick up, the economy is still not out of the woods.
"Holiday hiring might improve slightly over last year, but only because 2008 saw the lowest seasonal employment growth in nearly 20 years" Challenger said.