help hard to find
With the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to wind down and summer around the corner, businesses across the region are facing such an intense labor shortage that some merchants and officials have dubbed the situation a crisis.
Both year-round and seasonal businesses in South Jersey have reported a severe lack of interest and applications for open positions due to reasons including school commitments, lingering worries about the virus and contentment living off unemployment.
Higher wages, targeting different geographical areas for recruitment and job fairs are among the new tactics merchants and employers are using to reel in potential employees.
“It’s very much a crisis,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. “Not just seasonal businesses, but we’re hearing from businesses across the board (that are) having problems filling positions. ... Our tourism is our backbone, it’s a $6.9 billion industry and we’re very concerned.”
Along the Ocean City Boardwalk, many merchants have theories as to why they’re struggling to find new employees.
“Everyone likes collecting unemployment,” said Alex Rivera, 21, manager of It’Sugar on the Boardwalk. “People don’t want to have regular jobs anymore. During the quarantine, people started being creative, following their other talents and pursuing their dreams.”
In March, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus package passed by the Legislature granted unemployed Americans a $300 additional weekly payment that is scheduled to last through September.
Businesses paying above minimum wage, which is $11 per hour in New Jersey for most employees and $7.25 per hour nationally, are even having trouble.
“Maybe they’re scared because of COVID. Or maybe they’re not jumping for applications because they are making money on unemployment,” said William Jackson, manager of Chickie’s and Pete’s on the Ocean City Boardwalk. “Honestly, I don’t know, but we pay pretty well. Like most Boardwalk businesses do.”
On Wednesday, Morey’s Piers in Wildwood announced it had increased wages for seasonal staff to $15 an hour in hopes of attracting more applicants.
“It will be important for us to meet our hiring needs this summer so we can provide guests with the level of service they have come to expect when visiting our premier seaside amusement park,” Denise Beckson, vice president of human resources for Morey’s, said in a statement. “For this season, we have 1,500 positions available and about 400 of them filled.”
The workers shortage has affected at least one Wawa in the region. The store at Shore Road and Maryland Avenue in Somers Point was closed this week. A sign taped to the door indicated the closure was “due to limited staffing” and the store will be closed until further notice.
National employers also are reporting low numbers of new jobs added to the market, with only 266,000 added in April.
A report from the U.S. Department of Labor released Friday indicated industries that took the hardest hit last month were in temporary work, with 111,000 jobs lost.
On the other hand, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues added 331,000 jobs last month, more than the 206,000 added in March.
Like many merchants, Clark believes potential employees are riding out unemployment for the time being. She also thinks some people are choosing to stay unemployed to stay home with their school-aged children to help with virtual learning.
“A lot of parents feel they need to be home with their students to do virtual learning, which is very understandable,” Clark said. “We’re hoping that once elementary students who need their parents’ support at home are out of school, that’s when we’ll have more people apply for jobs.”
Employers and officials are especially concerned about the J-1 visa program, which allows visitors from more than 200 countries to come to the United States to work.
Every year, the county welcomes 2,500 to 3,000 students from overseas for its Summer Work Travel Program.
Last year, the pandemic brought the program to a halt, with only about 100 students coming for the summer. One of the barriers that was in place, which expired in March, was a proclamation under the Trump administration that blocked a variety of work visas.
For the 2021 season, the program’s fate is still up in the air due to remaining restrictions from the pandemic.
“That program is very much in jeopardy of not being in place,” Clark said. “We (Cape May County) are working very hard with the Biden administration and the state to have it come back.”
In the meantime, Clark said the chamber is getting creative with its recruiting process.
“(We are) recruiting in other parts of the U.S. whose seasons are wrapping up like in the South, Puerto Rico,” Clark said. “We’re hopeful to have workers who may want to come and work here for the summer season. And of course, we’re always trying to recruit college students ... and we’re doing all of the traditional methods of recruiting, like job fairs, the chamber has a Facebook page for businesses to post job openings.”
Martin Garvalov, manager of the Original Fudge Kitchen on the Ocean City Boardwalk, employs international students from Ukraine, Bulgaria and other European countries every year.
“The J-1 students are a major help every year. However, no one was allowed to come over (last year) because the borders were closed,” Garvalov said.
With the summer rapidly approaching, merchants and officials are scrambling to get it all together.
“Experience, no experience, we’ll train them for whatever the restaurant needs. We hire anything,” said Bob Arifi, a worker at Ocean’s South End pizzeria in Ocean City.
Staff Writer Mark Melhorn and Selena Vazquez contributed to this report.
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