OCEAN CITY — Before the summer season even arrives, there is already an acute labor shortage brewing in the resort’s hospitality industry, but steps are being taken to attempt to address the issue.
“Help Wanted” signs dot the resort’s landscape, which is not unusual in April in advance of the summer season, but questions remain if the business community will ever fill all the needed positions and the signs will ever come down. While many businesses are trying to fill out their seasonal workforce, more than a few are barely getting by with what they have now in the shoulder season.
The reasons for the labor shortage are many and the issues are complicated. The regulations for the J-1 summer work and travel visas have eased somewhat, but it remains uncertain if that segment of the workforce will return in big numbers, given the timing of the changes and the pandemic still lingering in overseas countries and hampering embassy openings. The J-1 students in a typical year contribute around 4,000 employees to a summer seasonal workforce of about 12,000, but just 100 came last year.
Another significant issue is the lack of affordable seasonal housing. With the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, many property owners are seeking other options to fill their seasonal housing, including taking the sure thing year-round rentals or opting for short-term rentals in online platforms such as Airbnb of VRBO, for example.
Perhaps the largest contributor to the labor shortage, however, is the many pandemic relief programs available to what would normally be the seasonal workforce. Enhanced unemployment benefits through September provide more weekly income than many employees would earn by returning to work. Recent federal stimulus checks have also fattened bank accounts and contributed to the issue.
Those facts are affecting the labor pool across all industries in the state, but the problem is particularly acute in the tourism and hospitality industries. However, state and local hospitality and tourism agencies are not standing pat and waiting for the issue to suddenly resolve itself. The Maryland Center for Hospitality Training (MCHT) and the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (HMRA) are partnering on an out-of-the-box initiative to attempt to address the issue with a “Connecting Marylanders with Maryland Jobs” program.
Through the program, potential hospitality workers will be recruited, vetted and trained by the MCHT and then connected with Ocean City HMRA members to help fill out their summer workforce rosters. As part of the program, the HMRA is working to provide housing as part of the employment package.
Through organizational assistance provided by the Maryland Department of Commerce, along with funding from the Maryland Department of Labor, the two state agencies are supporting the MCHT and HMRA pilot program. Recruitment has begun, and many are in the interview stage. The ultimate goal is to build a hospitality program that can be utilized by tourism offices all over the state, according to MCHT CEO Michael Haynie.
“The ‘Connecting Marylanders with Maryland Jobs’ pilot program is a statewide initiative to ensure one of our most treasured tourism products is able to meet the demands of an expected busy season,” he said. “We are pleased to have the opportunity to be chosen to support the initiative. We hope this program begins to build the labor pool of young people, which has been eroded by the pandemic. It will take out-of-the-box thinking to fix the problem.”
While the HMRA and MCHT pilot program will help, it will likely take some changes in the state’s unemployment policies to affect real solutions to the labor crunch locally and across the state. Because of COVID, the weekly benefits are enhanced by federal pandemic dollars ($300/week in most cases) and certain criteria such as job search requirements have been waived while a state of emergency remains in place.
To that end, the Ocean City HMRA, along with the Restaurant Association of Maryland, the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association, the Maryland Tourism Commission and the Maryland Breweries Association this week fired off a letter to Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson seeking relief.
“Practically every business has a help wanted sign and never have there been more available jobs in our state,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, many Marylanders are making a cognitive choice to accept unemployment assistance rather than returning to their job or finding a new one.”
The joint letter urges the Department of Labor to tighten job search requirements.
“We are requesting the removal of the temporary exemption for work search requirements and that claimants be required to actively search for work,” the letter reads. “We believe the mere perception of adding such would be beneficial to getting Marylanders to think it is time to get back to work. While we do have applicants applying for open positions, getting them to show up for more than one shift remains a challenge. This puts additional strain on those employees who have been loyal and report to work.”
In the letter, the tourism and hospitality agencies said many businesses are already altering their operations because of the labor shortage.
“Subsequently, businesses are altering operations and we are seeing hotels reduce the number of available rooms for rent and restaurants have been forced to reduce the hours of operation or close one day per week,” the letter reads. “This lack of workforce is not only crippling businesses’ ability to recover, but also hurting local and state tax revenues.”
The letter calls into question the interpretation of federal unemployment guidelines that suggest fear of the coronavirus is a legitimate reason not to return to the workforce, despite the safety measures still in place and the rollout of vaccinations.
“For over a year, most Maryland businesses have followed local, state and national health and safety standards related to COVID-19,” the letter reads. “Why would Maryland unemployment continue to provide benefits to individuals who are recalled to safe worksites? Maryland has done such an amazing job in providing the opportunity for residents to get vaccines, further providing safe worksites.”
The letter suggests the labor shortage will only get worse as the summer tourism season nears.
“As more Marylanders become vaccinated and the weather warms, the pent-up demand for travel continues to climb,” the letter reads. “Hospitality businesses are more than prepared to continue to offer safe travel experiences, but we desperately need staff to do so. We are pleading with the Maryland Department of Labor to bring back work search requirements and address the interpretation of federal unemployment guidance.”