OCEAN CITY — The growing labor shortage with the summer season quickly approaching was the subject of debate at the Tourism Commission this week.
With “help wanted” signs continuing to dot the resort landscape with the summer season ramping up, many in the business community are wondering if they will ever fill their needed positions. While many businesses are trying to fill out their seasonal workforce, many others are barely getting by with what they have now in the growing shoulder season. As the weather has warmed over the last month, the weekends have become increasingly busy.
The reasons for the acute labor shortage are many and the issues are complicated. The regulations for J-1 summer and work and travel programs have eased somewhat, but it remains uncertain if that segment of the workforce will return in big numbers. The J-1 students in a typical year contribute about 4,000 employees to the resort’s summer seasonal workforce of around 12,000, but it remains uncertain just how many will return this year due to embassy closures and other practical obstacles.
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 rental or pivoting to short-term rentals in online platforms such as Airbnb or VRBO, for example.
Perhaps the largest contributor to the labor crunch, however, are the many pandemic relief programs available to what would normally be the summer seasonal workforce. Enhanced unemployment benefits provide more weekly income than many employees would earn by retuning to work. In addition, recent federal stimulus checks have also fattened bank accounts and contributed to the issue.
Those issues are affecting the labor pool across all industries in the state and around the country, but the problem is particularly acute in the tourism and hospitality industries. During a tourism commission meeting this week, members had an impromptu discussion about some of the issues affecting the labor shortage.
There are some out-of-the-box programs in place to help address the issue. For example, the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) is partnering with the Maryland Center for Hospitality Training on an initiative aimed at addressing the issue with a “Connecting Marylanders with Maryland Jobs” program.
Through the program, potential hospitality workers are being recruited, vetted and trained by the MCHT and then connected with OCHMRA members to help fill out their summer workforce rosters. As part of the program, the OCHMRA is working to provide housing as part of the employment package. OCHMRA Executive Director Susan Jones said this week the program is up and running.
“Students are being trained right now,” she said. “They’re going to be good candidates. We’re not trying to replace the J-1s, we’re just trying to supplement those that aren’t coming.”
Jones said the J-1 visa summer work and travel programs restrictions have eased in this country, but challenges remain in other countries from which the J-1 student workers come.
“All of the other countries don’t have the same rules,” she said. “It’s anyone’s guess at this point.”
Jones said many businesses are already altering their schedules and open hours in response to the labor crunch. Others have scaled back their operations, such as eliminating lunch or blocking off hotel rooms.
“With the labor shortage, all of the hotels aren’t putting all over their inventory out there,” she said. “One hotel owner told me they were operating at 75%. The restaurants are cutting days and hours. They’re playing it by ear if they can get the staff.”
Tourism commission member Stephanie Meehan said many resort area restaurants are scaling back operations because of the shortage.
“We’re hearing people say they are only operating at 50%,” she said. “They don’t want to ruin their reputation and make people wait a long time or have bad service.”
Meehan, who operates a Boardwalk arcade, said her business has not been immune to the problem.
“It’s the same everywhere,” she said. “It’s the same with my business. I would normally be open from 9 a.m. to midnight, but I’m going to do 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. I just don’t want to kill my staff.”
Council President and commission chair Matt James said some incentives have been suggested to wean potential employees off enhanced unemployment benefits.
“Someone mentioned to me almost a severance pay to get off unemployment,” he said. “They wanted to offer a one-time payment of say $1,500 to get people to go back to work.”
Commission member and hotelier Michael James said keeping employees was just as challenging as finding them.
“The big thing we’re seeing now is people accepting a job and then not showing up,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. We’ve seen it happen at least 30 times in the last couple of months.”