Tourists are back, but there are no workers | Way of life
Patti Murrell was bending down to ram an umbrella deep into the sand when her phone rang again. It was another customer four blocks away waiting for his rental of an umbrella and two beach chairs.
âI’ll be there in 10 to 20 minutes,â she said, already sweating early on a recent Monday morning.
She dusted herself off, collected the payment, and got into her green truck to run to her other beach stand before her patrons stirred and left.
By the time she was back in bed at 9:30 a.m., she had serviced 16 umbrella rentals in 68 city blocks in Ocean City, Maryland. The soles of his feet were numb.
“I’m exhausted,” she said, still in bed by noon that day and drinking a cup of coffee. “If you asked someone who knows me or works for me, they would say this woman is a hard worker and we don’t know how she does it.”
In his 40 years as the head of Patti’s Beach Service, Murrell, 66, has built a business that requires around 20 people to operate. At the start of June this year, she could only find five employees willing to work part-time – meaning that every day Murrell, knee replacement and all, had to manage at least 10 vacant beach stalls herself.
After the pandemic largely kept Americans at home last summer, business owners in seaside towns across the country are expected to celebrate as people crowd into cars, trains and planes in search of picnics on the sand and dripping ice cream cones in the sun. The rush to the beach just in time for July 4, however, felt less like a snap and more like a burn for employers trying to keep up with demand.
The J-1 Visa program typically sends over 100,000 international students to work in the United States each summer, but the pandemic has created backlogs that can drive 90% of participants away, according to Casey Slamin, senior vice president of programs at InterExchange, a private sector sponsor who works with the State Department to implement the visa program. And many seasonal workers have decided not to return to work in person due to concerns about childcare and the coronavirus or, in some cases, a preference to stay home on unemployment benefits.
As a result, businesses up and down the East Coast have shortened their hours of operation and limited their offerings just as peak season collides with a pent-up desire to hit the beach.
The Brookings Institution analyzed employment data for 17 metropolitan areas that include the major seaside communities on the east coast and found that 16 of them – with the exception of Ocean City, NJ – were still in good shape. below their number of employees before the pandemic in the leisure and hospitality sectors. . In April, the Virginia Beach area was down 14.7%, Charleston was down 15.2%, and the Miami Beach area was 24% below its average leisure and hospitality job in April 2018 and 2019.
“It’s very clear that the beach economy is coming back, but it’s showing some wrinkles, especially on the supply side of the job market,” said Mark Muro, senior researcher and director of policy at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. . He pointed out that the data is from April, which could mean employment has increasingly recovered now that the summer has started.
A hotel operator who oversees more than a dozen properties along the east coast has allowed night workers to bring pets to get employees back to work. In Virginia Beach, a hostel owner filled housekeeping positions with his kids and their high school friends. One restaurant in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is so understaffed that neither the owner nor the general manager could come on the phone. They were both busy working in the kitchen.
In early June, a five-mile walk in Ocean City, Maryland, revealed the need for seasonal workers. Where the freeway ends and the walk begins is a public tennis center where a 20-year-old employee said he was the only returning tennis instructor in recent years. Steps away, Bad Monkey increased line cooks salaries from $ 15 to $ 20 an hour and dropped the price of crab cakes from $ 16 to $ 19. Three kilometers to the south, Jolly Roger Amusement Parks have shortened the hours of operation of its water park, GoCart, mini-golf and amusement park to distribute its workforce as much as possible, while at the southern tip of Ocean City, Sportland Arcade closed on a Tuesday morning because its skeleton staff were too tired from long weekend shifts.
âIt’s the perfect storm of events and the result is that businesses aren’t open seven days a week or all shifts,â said Susan Jones, executive director of Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant. Association. “People have to be patient when they come and show the working people a little more love.”
The J-1 visa program, which is run by the State Department, traditionally recruits, interviews and places applicants in jobs across the country starting in January to allow students to travel to the United States from here. June and stay until August. This year, a presidential proclamation suspended the program until March 31 due to concerns over the coronavirus. The delay has created a backlog in visa processing as embassies around the world – still struggling with capacity limitations and remote staffing – try to process applications in time for the summer.
Slamin predicted that visa processing delays will prevent 90 percent of program participants from traveling to the United States this summer.
âThe economy is anxious to get going but unfortunately these students are stuck in limbo,â he said, adding that more students could end up in the United States if the processing ramps up soon.
John Fager, owner of Bad Monkey and three other restaurants in Ocean City, said he normally employs around 100 D-1 students per summer. At the beginning of June, he had about twenty.
One of them was Marija Nikolic, a 22-year-old who had all but given up on her dream of a third summer in Ocean City, where she enjoys drinking on the beach and shopping at outlets.
That is, until she received a call about a month ago to schedule an interview with the Serbian Embassy. In three days, she had her visa and her plane ticket.
Nikolic, a master’s student in tourism and hospitality at an academy in southern Serbia, landed in the United States on June 11. Nikolic spent her last and final summer days as a chef on Fager’s Island and slicing sandwiches at Bad Monkey, and her evenings sweating and dancing in bars. When she arrived three weeks ago, she said, there were no Serbs around. No one else got a visa in time for the start of the summer.
“There are usually a lot of people from the Balkans here, so when I have nothing to do I can just call them and we go around,” she said. “Sometimes you miss the people in your country so you can speak in your language.”
Without most of his hires of international students or many of his former seasonal employees, who for one reason or another chose to remain unemployed, Fager had to increase wages to attract more staff. He also increased menu prices to ease the financial burden on his business – charging customers $ 18 for a $ 15 burger and $ 42 for a $ 40 steak.
âIt’s just not sustainable,â he said.
Yet there is a dominant consensus in Ocean City and elsewhere that the stress and hustle and bustle of excessive demand is far better than the alternative. Queues winding around street corners and long waits for dinner tables were a dream of business owners just a few months ago, especially those dependent on tourism. And while some seaside towns have benefited from the full-time move of city dwellers to their second homes, the boom in domestic travel has brought much-needed relief to business owners after a long and difficult pandemic year.
âEven a mediocre summer at the end of what we survived last year would have been a blow to us which could have taken a decade to recover,â said Taylor Adams, assistant general manager of Virginia Beach. “A strong summer will put us fully on the road to recovery.”
So, while many restaurants in Virginia Beach are open five days a week instead of seven, and restaurant owners double the number of servers, one inn owner has been counting his blessings.
Linwood Branch has owned the Days Inn for over 40 years – plus a hot dog stand, ice cream parlor, cafe, and retail store, all in Virginia Beach. Last year, Branch kept her bills until they were due and spent her nights organizing payment plans. He walked through the once bustling streets of his favorite places and saw them empty. There were no queues at Funky’s Ice Cream.
For him, the now perpetual shortage of towels for guests, his 15 missing employees and the fact that he and his children have to undress the beds to avoid exhausting his housekeepers – it’s a change from pure joy. to see his city come back to life. .