Beach-loving sun-seekers are sure to return in force to Ocean City this summer. The question is whether the resort town will have enough cooks, cleaners, servers and salespeople to handle the crowds.
It’s a concern of tourism officials and business managers, who say the reopening of society after months of coronavirus restrictions has fueled pent-up demand for vacations. People just have to get away, and drive-to destinations, such as the accessible mid-Atlantic beach town, stand to benefit.
But, as the traditional start of summer arrives, Ocean City’s hotels, restaurants, stores and other businesses are facing a labor shortage.
“The demand is there. The labor is not,” said Ray Shields, general manager of the Cambria Ocean City - Bayfront, a less-than-year-old hotel gearing up for its first summer season.
For Ocean City, the timing of the nationwide labor shortage couldn’t be worse. Some expect the beach town’s business could be even better than the pre-pandemic summer of 2019. Many of its businesses rely on entry-level and service-oriented workers and need more of them during the peak summer season.
Resort communities across the U.S. are facing critical worker shortages, spurred by a lack of foreign workers many rely on and a reluctance of domestic workers to take seasonal jobs, experts say.
“These temporary, often lower-wage positions are historically filled by foreign workers who have obtained visas, but with processing holdups and ongoing COVID-related travel bans, those workers aren’t coming in traditional numbers,” said Nicole Hollywood, a University of Maryland Eastern Shore professor in the department of business, management and accounting.
And domestic workers may find it not worthwhile to take a lower-paying seasonal job because of extended unemployment benefits, COVID-19 safety concerns and increased child care or elder care responsibilities they took on during the pandemic, employment experts say.
The pandemic exacerbated already existing shortages for seasonal hires in resort communities such as Ocean City, said Memo Diriker, director of Salisbury University’s Business Economic and Community Outreach Network.
The lack of affordable housing in resort areas that tend to offer pricey accommodations has long been an issue, along with jobs that can be difficult and low-paying, he said.
As employers try to attract more domestic workers this year, they face stiff competition for labor.
“The person you’re trying to get to work in the back of the kitchen washing dishes could do an easier job for higher pay elsewhere in Maryland,” Diriker said.
Workers are so in demand that many large employers — Amazon, Costco, Target, Under Armour, Walmart — have boosted their minimum wages well above what the government requires.
Ocean City has relied on foreign workers to fill as many as a third of about 12,000 seasonal positions through the federal Summer Work Travel Program. Last year, with the pandemic raging, those workers filled only 100 slots. Even though businesses didn’t need as many workers because of coronavirus restrictions, staffing still was challenging.
This year, said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, “we are becoming busier and busier by the day now that people’s travel comfort has improved. People are ready to get out of the house and go.”
Businesses want to expand to meet that demand, but too often “that’s just not feasible because they can’t find employees,” Jones said. “I haven’t talked to one employer that told me they have everyone hired that they need hired for the season.”
That’s because the year-round populations of Ocean City and nearby towns aren’t sufficient to meet hiring demand. Some potential workers with child care or other family obligations might not yet be able to go back to work. Others still might be fearful for health reasons of working around a lot of people.
And employers around the country have complained they can’t compete with enhanced unemployment benefits designed to tide over people who lost their jobs in the pandemic.
Some economists dispute that. Diriker, for one, believes the extra $300 a week in pandemic unemployment benefits is not stopping most unemployed people from taking desirable jobs.
While Ocean City does expect more foreign workers this summer, uncertainty swirls around that J-1 visa program with approvals moving ahead or not depending on the country and the employee’s situation. Some of those who do get visas have trips delayed because of quarantine and testing requirements.
The Cambria, an eight-story, 137-room waterfront hotel with pools, two restaurants, and rooftop and outdoor event space, had met only 70% of its staffing needs as the key Memorial Day weekend approached, Shields said. The hotel and its restaurants and bars needs about 100 workers but had hired about 70.
The hotel has one restaurant and bar open now and hopes to have the staffing available to open its rooftop restaurant and bar next month.
Shields said he expects to get some J-1 workers, but not for the next month or so. Still, he considers his hotel fortunate in that it has been able to hire about 90% of the workers needed from the program — from Belarus, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Romania and Thailand. Other potential hires from Turkey and Lichtenstein have not been able to come.
Some businesses are facing even greater shortages, Shields said.
Without enough people to clean all their rooms, some hotels might not be able to book all of them, while some restaurants might limit days open to give overworked staff a break.
The staffing shortage had Jones trying to think creatively earlier this year. She approached Michael E. Haynie, founder and CEO of the Elkridge-based Maryland Center for Hospitality Training, about creating a training pipeline to bring workers to Ocean City.
The association and the training center launched a pilot program to train 80 high school and college students from the Baltimore region to work in hospitality jobs at the beach for the summer. Haynie said he began recruiting at area high schools, community colleges and universities, targeting schools with hospitality-related programs. Even that proved more difficult than he’d expected.
“I thought we would be overwhelmed,” Haynie said.
But, he said, it was more difficult to recruit people virtually than in person. He also suggested federal stimulus money and relief programs may have dampened interest.
Because finding affordable housing for workers earning starting wages can be a challenge, participating employers had to provide the workers with dormitory-style housing. As of last Monday, 50 workers had started in Ocean City in positions in security, hotel front desk, waitstaff, kitchen cook and helper, housekeeping and property maintenance. An additional 10 to 15 students are in training, and recruiting and hiring will continue through June. The goal is to expand the pilot into a permanent source of labor.
“The goal when we started talking was we have got to figure out how to make people enjoy hospitality again,” Jones said. “It is an entry-level industry where you can get in with little skill and work your way up and be a manager or owner with hard work.”
Da’Mari Thomas, an 18-year-old senior graduating from Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, trained with the program after hearing about it through Sutton Scholars, a youth program associated with the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
Thomas, a Northeast Baltimore resident who plans to study electrical engineering and construction management this fall in community college, is now working at the Carousel Hotel. Thomas said he was interested in a hospitality job because he likes “taking care of people problems. I’m good at problem-solving and analyzing things.”
He said he also saw a chance to “go to Ocean City and network with different people I never met before,” and have a “chance to step away into a new environment with people willing to help you grow.”
His summer employer, the Carousel Group, which runs seven hotels in Ocean City, took on 10 workers from the Maryland training program. The students were a welcome addition as the hotel group waits to hear whether some of the J-1 visa workers from countries such as the Czech Republic and parts of Russia will be processed, said Michael James, president and managing partner of the Carousel Group.
The hotel chain usually hires 175 to 200 workers from Eastern Europe but this summer has commitments so far from only 60. College interns will help fill out the group’s marketing, accounting and social media needs.
James said they still need as many as 250 workers — front desk clerks, bellmen, housekeeping, maintenance and groundskeeping staff for hotels that include the oceanfront Carousel, the Crystal Beach Oceanfront Hotel, the Fenwick Inn, Coastal Palm Inn and Suites, Cayman Suites Hotel, Bonita Beach Hotel and the Atlantic Hotel.
Last year, the hotels did not open restaurants for indoor dining, but as indoor dining reopens, “we’ll need more line cooks, managers, hostesses, everything from culinary to the service side,” James said.
“We are currently short-staffed but heading in the right direction, heading to Memorial Day not fully staffed but close enough to get the job done,” James said. “Right now people are getting overtime. It’s a team effort.”