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High unemployment has not filled seasonal employment gap left by exchange students

High unemployment has not filled seasonal employment gap left by exchange students

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OCEAN CITY — One of the ironies of the summer of 2020 — and there seem to be plenty — is that despite double-digit unemployment numbers nationwide, shore businesses are having a tough time hiring staff.

At the historic Flanders Hotel on the Ocean City Boardwalk, management has turned to local high schools to fill the gaps.

“For the first time in a long time, we’re hiring a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds,” said Peter Voudouris, director of hotel and banquet operations at The Flanders.

Usually, the hotel would rely on foreign students, as do many businesses throughout the shore. Thousands of students from around the world participate in the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, working seasonal jobs around the country, including in Jersey Shore towns each summer. Or, at least they do most years.

“Of course, this year, we can’t get them,” Voudouris said.

It’s not quite accurate to say there are no foreign workers at the shore this year, but with the federal government pausing the program due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers are a fraction of the average.

“Normally, we have 3,000 or so J-1 students. This year, there will be 100 or so in the county,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. “There is a very serious shortage of employees this year. All of the businesses are telling us that they’re having difficulty filling positions.”

The only students who are able to come this year already had their visas in place before the March decision to shut down the program. But even those with the temporary visas in hand had to find a flight to the United States, Clark said, which can be difficult with marked reductions in air travel.

The exchange program was launched to give college students around the world a chance to see the United States. Many of them work more than one job to maximize their income while in the country.

According to Voudouris, the students tend to be more mature, and many have worked in the travel industry in their home countries. American students are often unable to work the entire summer, he added, with student athletes often expected at practice well before school starts.

“The second week of August and they’re gone,” he said.

The teenager hired for this summer will mostly work in housekeeping, he said. The hotel looked for applicants who seemed ready for the responsibility and did not object to sometimes unpleasant tasks. But returning or experienced employees are preferred, he said, although they are scarce this year.

“When we get into the season, it’s very tough to find the time to train them,” he said.

Most summers, the jobs pay minimum wage or a little more. According to Diane Wieland, Cape May County’s tourism director, some businesses are offering better pay or other perks, such as free ride tickets for some amusement workers or free food.

“It’s an employee’s market right now. If you’re a good, hard worker, you can get top dollar,” she said.

But, she added, it is difficult for seasonal businesses to increase pay by very much when there is such a short window of profitability.

Plus, it’s one more pressure on a summer in which many businesses will be lucky to break even. Wieland and others described this summer as “survival mode” for local businesses, faced with limited occupancy, added expenses to meet state requirements and more work to do with fewer employees.

A June jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the national unemployment rate at 11.1%, which would have been a staggering number most years but was an improvement over the April high 14.7%, an all-time high representing tens of millions of people.

In New Jersey, a June report from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development put the state unemployment rate at 15.2%, after an early spring that saw unprecedented numbers of people filing jobless claims.

But there are reasons potential employees are not flocking to the shore. For one, the cost of housing is prohibitively expensive. Also, applicants know it’s a temporary gig.

“Obviously, most people would rather a full-time, year-round job with benefits than to pick up seasonal jobs,” Clark said.

Add to that a federal benefit that put an additional $600 a week into people’s unemployment check, and a job in housekeeping or on the boardwalk just isn’t as inviting, especially for workers with families who would have to find child care to take a pay cut.

“If you can make more money on unemployment, then why go back to work?” said Clark. “We’re just hoping that people will find value in going back to work. They’re tired of being cooped up as we’ve all been.”

Years ago, college students from around the region came to shore towns to earn a little money and spend a summer at the beach, packing into cheap rooming houses or summer rentals. That is no longer the pattern, Wieland said. Students who need money may not want to spend a significant portion of their earnings on a place to live, while those who don’t need the money often look for unpaid internships that may further their careers.

“Another factor is a lot of rooming houses have been torn down or converted into condos,” Wieland said. “And a lot of neighborhoods don’t want group housing.”

Meanwhile, businesses expect to make less money even as the work gets harder, with staff dealing with outside dining, increased workloads and more. Restaurants, retail stores and rides are operating under new limits. Even with state limits on hotel occupancy now lifted, the hotels remain under-booked.

“Reservations are not what they should be,” said Voudouris. “With the students and the regular staff, we should be able to get through the summer.”

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