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Real Deal

How Can This Store Owner Deal With a Last-Minute Holiday Staffing Vacancy?

The case of the last-minute holiday staffing hurdle.




A PET STORE OWNER finishes her holiday planning only to realize her best employee has to leave to look after her sick mom.


Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual pet businesses and people.


LINDA LIEBRAND is a former marketing manager for a successful doggie spa and boutique who is now helping others promote their local pet businesses. She writes about pet biz marketing at and can be reached at linda@

Ellen took a step back and snapped a photo of her window display. It looked just perfect — a tiny gingerbread village with cats and dogs shopping for the holidays. She had dusted the streets and roofs with a layer of snowy icing sugar, and little fairy lights showed the way to the centerpiece, a near perfect replica of her pet store. She hit the share button on her phone and wrote “We’re looking forward to seeing you all at the Dog House after the Christmas tree lighting ceremony tomorrow — we’re open until 8 p.m.!” She immediately saw her screen light up with a like, and she smiled to herself as she stepped into her store.


She picked up the staff schedule she’d printed off and pinned it to the bulletin board in the kitchen area. She thanked her lucky stars that her longtime employee Sue was able to step up and work full-time in December so that Ellen could spend her time doing what she loved most, grooming dogs.

“This holiday, I’m ready!” she thought and looked around. She’d stocked the shelves to the brim with gifts and goodies for her four-legged customers. Her homemade gift stockings for cats and dogs hung near the counter, and the baskets on the table in the middle of her shop were overflowing with holiday-themed squeaky toys and chews.

Then, the shrill tone of her phone interrupted her thoughts.

“Hi Ellen, it’s Sue. Listen, I’m at the airport, and I don’t have much time to talk, but I won’t be able to make it to work tomorrow. Dad just rang, Mom’s had a stroke, and it’s serious. I hope you can find someone to cover for me because I need to go home.”

Ellen suddenly felt dizzy, and she sat down and cradled her phone with both hands. Her mind was spinning.

A wave of sadness and worry for Sue’s mum was quickly replaced by a sickening trickle of guilt for immediately thinking about her own holiday sales. A stroke was serious and would take a long time to recover from, and Sue was likely to need a few weeks with her family at least.


She looked up at the staff roster. Was there anyone else who might be able to help? Perhaps Jenna could take on more hours? No, Jenna still has to go to college, she remembered. Ellen glanced over at her grooming calendar. Her clients would be furious if she canceled on them before the holidays, but what else could she do? She couldn’t expect Sue to come back early and work when her mom was in the hospital. She put the phone back up to her ear.

“Everything will be just fine here Sue,” she said. “Give your mom and dad my best and come back when you’re ready.”

She hung up and suddenly felt very lonely. Tomorrow was the start of the busiest season of the year, and she had no one to help. Of all the things she’d imagined going wrong, Sue not showing up for work simply hadn’t been one of them, and she didn’t even know where to start to fix this problem.

Big Questions

  • How can Ellen protect herself from depending too much on individual members of staff in the future?
  • Is Ellen right to let Sue take as much time off as she needs?
  • What should Ellen do to get her business through the next few weeks and the busy holiday season?

Real Deal Responses: Expanded Online Version

Kim L.
Roanoke, VA

The employer should be reasonably accommodating in order to ensure the prized employee feels secure in her position when her family crisis is over. If the employer does not allow the employee to have the time off, the chances of the employee choosing to leave the company are high. Sometimes the loss of someone over a short period is necessary, and it is the responsibility of a small business owner to prepare for and manage a crisis while respecting the needs of the employees.

Terri E.
Salem, OR

What a good thing to be thinking about now! I plan to hire a high school student for part-time work now and will get them trained before the holiday season. This person won’t necessarily have the experience needed to work with our customers but can do all the backup work in the store to free up my experienced staff for more customer-facing time.

Karen C.
Delavan, WI

Always have a few people who are familiar enough with your store to at least run the register and answer phones. In an emergency, any number of people can step up. You can’t be afraid to ask for help from current and past employees/family in time like this! Don’t underestimate your clients; if you are honest about the situation, they will be understanding if appointments have to be adjusted. We have adjusted store hours temporarily to ensure proper staffing during emergencies.

Eric M.
Columbus, NC

Waffle House regional managers make a lot of money, but they have to be ready to cook or wait tables at a moment’s notice. Given it’s the employee’s parents, and not some long-distance relative, I feel OK letting the employee have the time needed to take care of matters. I would like communication and a possible return date. In my opinion, this is part of small business, flexibility and compassion.

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