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Memorial Day weekend post-COVID demands arrive, tourist towns struggle to find ample summer staff

"Businesses are struggling. They cannot find help" – Ben Rose, a director for the Jersey Shore's Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority.

Updated: June 1, 2021 - 2:10pm

The tourism industry is emerging from nearly a year of just surviving under the COVID-19 pandemic and its related health-safety restrictions. But with restrictions being lifted and a record summer season being forecasted, resort towns across the country this Memorial Day weekend face another big challenge – finding enough ice cream dippers, front desk clerks, lifeguards and other employees. 

Finding summer workers is a perennial challenge for U.S. resort and vacation towns, with hotel and restaurant owners and others competing for employees in a small labor pool of mostly local residents and college students. 

But as pandemic numbers trend downward and restrictions are lifted, employers say virus-related challenges such as enhanced unemployment benefits, child care, and to a lesser extent fear of contracting the virus are making summer 2021 especially challenging.

Wildwood, New Jersey – were visitors can stroll along a 2.5-mile boardwalk lined by the Atlantic Ocean, amusement rides, pizza parlors and other businesses – is among those facing the seasonal labor shortage.

"Businesses are struggling. They cannot find help. Many of the businesses are even offering $15 an hour. I know some are offering sign-on bonuses to get off unemployment and come to work," Ben Rose, a director for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority, told Just the News ahead of this three-day weekend. "Come and enjoy yourself, but just understand, everyone is short staffed up and down the coast. That's everywhere."

The year before the pandemic started, 2019, was a record-breaking year for tourism revenue not just for the Wildwoods area, but the entire state of New Jersey. And pre-season bookings for the region this summer are ahead of 2019 numbers by double digits.

Rose is among those who pointed to such underlying factors as lack of affordable day care and continued unemployment benefits, rather than fear of contracting the virus, which he says is in the "rear-view mirror."

Another issue is the federal J-1 visa program that allows international students to work in the United States.

The lure of warm sun and sandy beaches has historically helped resort towns fill summer jobs by hiring college-age foreign workers. But this summer, the application process was effectively closed until April because of the pandemic, creating a backlog at embassies and adding to the shortage, Rose also said.

Just down the coast, in Ocean City, Md., the staffing is also a problem. However, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is taking steps to accelerate economic recovery by connecting job seekers with available opportunities. 

"Staffing has been an enormous challenge for our business community.  This issue is certainly not limited to Ocean City, but rather is being experienced nationwide," says Jessica Waters, the town's communications director. 

Hogan is among several GOP governors beginning to lift federal unemployment benefits so more people are encouraged to find work.

"The Town of Ocean City is certainly supportive of this action and believes it is time to get Marylanders back to work in Maryland businesses," Waters also said.

She spoke ahead of the Memorial weekend in which gas prices are climbing to a seven-year high, creating additional concerns about a tourism-industry rebound, following 2020 in which domestic air travel, for example, was down 50 to 60%, by most estimates. 

Up the coast in Lewes, Delaware, Matt Kern was recently trying to put some final pieces in place before this week at Heirloom, where he's an executive chef. 

"I'm working six or seven days a week, and trying to find employees in a limited talent pool," said Kern, whose restaurant is in a town with a year-round population of just roughly 3,100 people. "We don't hire bodies. We hire people full time."

He also acknowledged that some restaurant workers – left jobless by the pandemic – are still clinging to steady unemployment benefits and that affordable child care is a factor.

"I hope so. I really hope so," Kern said to questions about being fully staffed for the start of the season. "We're booked for many, many weekends."  

North Carolina's Outer Banks is one of the nation's top summer tourist destinations and typically sees millions of visitors annually. The sandy beaches stretch over 175 miles, and many of the towns survive off of tourism and the limited summer travel season. 

"All indications are that it's going to be a big summer," said Dare County public relations officer Dorothy Hester. "We are seeing businesses have to adjust because they're unable to staff as they would like to."

Hester said nearly all businesses are looking for help and some are planning to close one day a week or shorten hours of operations as a result of staffing issues.

Gas prices and this weekend's forecast of solid rain may have a silver lining – keeping enough people away to gives businesses a bit more time to fully staff. 

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