By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Two words define perhaps the most serious challenge that businesses are facing this summer in Sea Isle City.
Not “coronavirus pandemic.” But “help wanted.”
Although business owners at the shore are hoping for a strong recovery after suffering from the economic hardships of the pandemic last year, they still have to find enough workers to staff their bars, restaurants, hotels and retail shops.
The business community often has to scramble each summer to hire employees, but this year the labor shortage is even more profound, they said.
“You can drive all over Sea Isle and see ‘Help Wanted’ signs,” said Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock restaurant in the historic Fish Alley neighborhood.
Kathy Larkin, manager of the Ocean Drive bar and its sister property O’Donnell’s Pour House restaurant and pub, said it has been particularly difficult to find enough cooks, pantry staff and dishwashers.
“Everything. It’s just difficult to get positions filled,” she said. “People just aren’t doing these types of jobs.”
Christopher Glancey, whose Shorebreak Resorts company operates 32 upscale rental condominiums in Sea Isle, said every business owner he has talked to has encountered the same problem in finding summer workers.
“We’re all facing the same challenges,” Glancey said. “We’re all going to operate in the summer of 2021 while facing a shortage of employees.”
Bartenders, chefs, wait staff, housekeepers and delivery drivers are among key positions that must be filled by Sea Isle’s bars, restaurants and hotels, he pointed out.
“It’s everything. If you run a pizza shop, it’s delivery people,” Glancey said.
In a cautionary note, he said visitors at the shore may have to show “a lot of patience” if there aren’t enough workers to fill all of the positions.
“This is the worst employment challenge that I’ve seen in 20 years of doing business here,” Glancey said.
Monichetti has signs in front of his restaurant on Park Road to advertise for workers. In the front window is a large yellow sign, with blue letters, that says “Summer Employment Opportunities.” He also has a “Help Wanted sign.”
Normally, Monichetti hires 86 summer workers. As of Monday, he had only 46. However, he was interviewed on a radio show about the worker shortage and that publicity helped him to recruit more employees this week. As of Friday evening, he has 62.
Citing the 110-year history of his family-owned business, Monichetti said the labor shortage will not prevent him from welcoming back the customers who have made his restaurant a tradition of their summer vacations at the shore.
“I owe it to the people who come down here and spend their hard-earned money on vacation. I owe it to them to be up and running,” he said. “It’s just a tradition. You dine at Mike’s. If I have to work 18 hours a day, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Compounding the labor shortage is the difficulty that businesses are having in recruiting enough foreign students who come to the United States each summer to find jobs under the State Department’s J1 Summer Work visa program.
COVID-19 delays have slowed down the processing of J1 visas at the U.S. embassies in foreign countries, Monichetti said. He said the embassies normally can handle visas for about 100 students each day, but that number has plummeted to 10 per day during the pandemic.
Mike’s Seafood usually has a dozen J1 students working during the summer, but this year there will likely be nowhere near that number.
“The company we use to hire these students says we’ll be lucky to see two,” Monichetti said.
Glancey also expects a dramatic drop-off in the number of J1 students he will be hiring this summer. Usually, he has around 40 of those students who work at his hotels in Ocean City.
“I honestly don’t know how many we can get (this summer). Five, 10, 12?” he said.
Also contributing to the shore’s labor shortage are the stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits approved by the federal and state government during the pandemic. Some people can now make more money simply staying at home and collecting unemployment benefits than having a job, Monichetti said.
“I know of some people who are making $1,200 or $1,300 a week by staying home,” he said. “I don’t blame them (for not working). If I’m them, I’m going to the beach, the Boardwalk, swimming or fishing.”