Island businesses grapple with unprecedented labor shortage

Stores up and down Main Street in Vineyard Haven have Help Wanted signs in their windows, including Stina Sayre. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Even though Memorial Day has already passed, many Island business owners are still scrambling to find summer help.

In a conversation with The Times last week, Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, was frank in her assessment of the current labor shortage. “I think we’ve graduated to crisis mode,” she said. “It’s a shame, because people have worked so hard to promote Martha’s Vineyard as a three-season destination.”

“This is by far the worst year ever,” John Tiernan, manager of the Dockside Inn in Oak Bluffs, said. “Everyone I talk to is having a hard time finding help.”

“I turned down eight projects yesterday. I could keep eight more employees busy, no problem,” Brian Packish, owner of Packish Landscaping, told The Times. “Pretty much everywhere I go, people are talking about it. At this point it’s like a broken record. We have to come to terms with it; it’s a serious situation.”

“I think this is a particular challenge for the small business owner,” Ms. Gardella said. “And it’s not just a shortage of seasonal help. Year-round businesses also struggle to attract qualified workers.”

Jennifer Pacheco, manager at Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs, echoed Ms. Gardella. “It’s been difficult finding help this entire year, not just this summer,” she said. “We were short all year long.”

Foreign aid
Vineyard merchants have become increasingly dependent on employees from abroad on J-1 visas. A J-1 visa allows foreign workers under 28 years old, with a working knowledge of English, to come to the U.S. with three months’ work time and one month’s travel time. Workers on J-1 visas have growing appeal to Island employers, since they also get housing subsidies and housing placement assistance from agencies in their country of origin.

Ms. Pacheco said she has hired seven employees on J-1 visas to bolster her staff this summer.

Laurie Welch, owner of Basics and Eastaway, is faring better than most employers, but still needs to enlist “J-1s.” “I have a good core of Islanders who work here year-round,” she said. “But I still need to hire J-1s this summer. I’ve never had so few applications.”

Christian Thornton, chef and co-owner of Atria in Edgartown, said he’s fully staffed, in large part because he shifted his hiring practices four years ago to include more J-1 visa workers, who make up about a third of his 45-person staff. “Luckily, I don’t have a huge struggle because of the J-1 program,” he said. “Before that, there was always a panic of getting enough staff for the summer.”

The vast majority of business owners polled by The Times said J-1 workers have become increasingly important, because most American college students have to leave in mid-August. Many said they had been suddenly left shorthanded by collegiates who had been duplicitous about their departure date.

Bill Roman, general manager of the Edgartown Yacht Club, told The Times that before he hires an American college student, he always checks when classes begin at his or her respective school. “They haven’t always been upfront about that,” he said. “So we always do some checking.”

Shelter shortage
“There’s no question the housing situation is very detrimental to securing workers,” Ms. Gardella said. “There’s just not enough inventory. Generally, with students the bar is set pretty low, and they’re more tolerant about housing conditions, but there’s nothing out there.”

“We put up ‘housing wanted’ signs in our store, and put it out there by word of mouth,” Ms. Pachico said. “We managed to house our J-1s, but it gets more difficult every year.”

“Housing is always a problem, and the problem is only getting bigger,” Mr. Thornton said. “Like everyone else, we can’t entertain hiring someone until they have some kind of housing.”

Because of the housing shortage, and the increasing number of complaints about exploitive landlords, this increasingly crucial stream of J-1 workers may soon dry up on the Vineyard.

In an earlier interview with The Times, Chesca’s restaurant co-owner Joanne Maxwell said the sponsor companies she deals with have indicated that the Vineyard may soon not be offered as a place to work.

At a workforce housing forum sponsored by the Island Housing Trust (IHT) earlier this spring, Tom Seeman, owner of Island Source, a distribution company, told a group of Island business owners that last summer he hired someone from Kosovo who had to move three times, and ended up sharing a floor of a house in Oak Bluffs with 15 people, with one bathroom and an outdoor shower. “There’s a lack of morality here that the Island can’t support,” Mr. Seeman said.

At the same gathering, Richard Leonard, regional president of the Cape Cod 5 and chairman of the IHT, said the severity of the housing problem is, ironically, exacerbated by an improving economy. “When the economy was down and summer rentals were down, people who owned second homes were more willing to rent on a year-round basis,” he said. “Obviously, that’s changed dramatically.”

“As the housing goes, the service goes, and if the service goes down, people don’t come back,” J.B. Blau, owner of five Island restaurants, said at the forum. Mr. Blau said the difficulty in finding employee housing was “astronomically” more difficult this year than last year. “I don’t know if people fully understand what the service industry does to create an identity for the tourists. It’s massive. If the service quality drops, they’ll go to Newport next time. We’re competing with places that can pull their workforce from a 50-mile radius. We’re an island; we obviously can’t do that.”

“We have to look at the endgame,” Mr. Packish told The Times. “Do we want a workforce that commutes every day from the Cape? That means you’re paying their boat every day, and you have to pay them more than they can make on the Cape. Then the money they make doesn’t go back into our local economy.”

Mr. Packish, who also serves as the chairman of the Oak Bluffs planning board, said the board is discussing zoning bylaw changes to address the workforce housing shortage. “Right now in Oak Bluffs, you can’t even permit a new duplex as things stand,” he said.

“This is no longer a problem that can be kicked down the road,” Ms. Gardella said. “It’s affecting the Island economy right now, no doubt about it. I’m also concerned about the health of our small business owners, because they’re working themselves into the ground.”

There is at least one economic upside to the Island labor woes — industrious young Islanders who still live at home can make a bundle of money this summer. If they plan on living here on their own someday, they’re apparently going to need it.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the family name of the owners of the Reliable Market in Oak Bluffs. It is Pacheco and not Pachico.