Businesses grapple with seasonal worker shortage as demand for service grows

Businesses across the U.S. are facing a conundrum: a rising demand for service as coronavirus pandemic restrictions are lifted and a shortage of seasonal workers to help meet that demand.

A combination of factors — from fewer immigrant workers to expanded unemployment benefits to worry about contracting COVID-19 — has contributed to the worker shortage, which has hit hard in businesses such as restaurants, hotels, summer camps and agriculture.

Along the Coastal Highway in Ocean City, Maryland, Longboard Cafe is short about 10 employees although it is completely booked for Memorial Day weekend, according to restaurant owner Rick Vach. The beach town heavily relies on students from overseas with J-1 visas, but that workforce has “dramatically dried up,” he said.

While Mr. Vach is typically able to hire 10 to 12 students on J-1 visas each summer, he said he was only able to get one from Kazakhstan this year.

High demand for hired help has many restaurants in the beach town trying to “outbid each other” for these student workers, Mr. Vach added.

Although it’s the unofficial summer season, the Longboard Cafe is unable to operate full-time and is closed Tuesdays due to the employee shortage.

In North Carolina, the Savannah Inn is struggling to hire seasonal workers. The oceanfront hotel in Carolina Beach is short housekeeping staff.

Hotel manager Brittany Francis said the inn recently hired a couple of housekeepers after months of recruiting, but is looking to hire two or three more people.

“The biggest reason I think people are turning down job opportunities like this one is because of the pandemic. I don’t think people are interested in having to clean up after people,” Ms. Francis said. “I also think we are having a hard time because so many people are on unemployment with extra benefits as well as stimulus checks. It is making it a little bit more lucrative for them to sit at home.”

She said many businesses in the small beach town are suffering from labor shortages.

“Restaurants and other hotels right here in this area I know have been making [job] posts left and right, trying to find people to help. We’re all struggling to find that assistance,” she said.

Both Ms. Francis and the hotel’s owner are cleaning rooms themselves and working extra hours to try and make up for the shortage. The hotel also is limiting the number of rooms they book, not accepting walk-ins currently as per usual and requiring guests to stay for a minimum of two nights.

While staff may be down, demand for rooms at the inn is not.

“We have definitely seen a huge influx in tourism ever since a lot of the COVID restrictions have been lifted. It’s been a pretty busy year for us altogether, typically where you wouldn’t see a big boom in tourism, we did,” Ms. Francis said. “Our town is becoming a lot more popular.”

The nationwide unemployment rate was 6% in March, near pre-pandemic levels, but some employers who had to lay off workers in the early days of the pandemic say hiring back a full workforce as COVID-19 restrictions start to ease has been difficult.

Kelly Wiseman, general manager of the Community Food Co-Op in Bozeman, Montana, said some of the roughly 40 employees the business laid off last year left the area and haven’t come back.

Other employees left their jobs because they were fed up with run-ins with anti-maskers, Ms. Wiseman said.

“There were a lot of very belligerent, angry people walking around acting like toddlers, in my opinion,” Ms. Wiseman said. “I think a lot of workers got sick of it.”

Meanwhile, summer camps across the country — not just near coastlines or bodies of water — are struggling to find staff, according to Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association.

“We’re seeing a national employment shortage for seasonal positions this summer, and the field of summer camps is not immune from that,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Camps are still working very hard to fill out their staff with qualified young adults.”

He said part of the reason for the shortage is because many colleges are requiring students to take summer courses. Another reason could be that some students are putting off making final summer plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.

Amid the pandemic, camps are following certain protocols including limiting the number of campers who are allowed to participate. But even with capacity reduced to 70% or 90%, camps are still having trouble finding enough staffers, Mr. Rosenberg said.

Also, a reported 25,000 to 31,000 cultural exchange visitors have spent summers working at camps in the U.S. each year since 1961. However, a travel ban is in place for about half of the countries where these visitors come from, Mr. Rosenberg noted.

“Camps all across our country right now are seeing challenges related to these cultural exchange visitors. It’s not just on the water, so to speak, but camps in rural America and all across our country really,” he said.

Similarly, there is a tremendous demand for camps this summer, he said, citing a recent snapshot enrollment survey.

“Many new families who had not considered camp for their kids in the past are now trying to gain access to camps for their kids,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “We need to recruit more adults who are qualified to work in camps this summer.”

In agriculture, farmers are facing challenges filling open positions as well as shown by the “increased use of the H-2A [visa] program,” said Allison Crittenden, congressional relations director of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Over the last 10 years, use of the program, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary job posts, has grown 350%, Ms. Crittenden said.

She added that farm work is challenging and physically demanding, and farmers are competing with other businesses in hiring.

“Farmers are dependent on the workforce to help plant the crop and harvest it. Without an ample workforce, many crops, such as fruits and vegetables, will rot in the field and be wasted,” she said. “In the long run, the labor shortage could limit the future of farming in the United States, if there aren’t enough hands to plant and harvest labor-intensive crops.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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