In recent weeks, “help wanted” signs have become ubiquitous: gas stations, garden centers, grocery stores, and corner shops all need help. A booming housing market and tight constraints on the supply side (zoning) have made the cost of living on-Island a challenge for the thousands who make their living off seasonal work. What really drove the labor shortage home was our local delivery driver asking if we knew anyone on Island who wanted to be a driver, as the company needed nearly 20 drivers to address demand.
There is an entire economy of “Island labor hoppers” that follow the sun from Martha’s Vineyard in summer down south through the Caribbean in the winter now finding that way of life eroding away. The days of spending an extended summer waitressing, lifeguarding, teaching jiujitsu, running a pop-up store to sack away savings is becoming more difficult.
The Island is experiencing what we are seeing nationally: record job openings, but at the same time, record levels of small businesses saying those jobs are “hard to fill.” Why are so many jobs hard to fill, with still-high unemployment? There are many reasons for this, from extended unemployment benefits (which raises the recipient’s so-called reservation wage) to schools not being fully reopened (parents thus staying home to watch their kids), to lingering hesitation on the part of some workers to go back to high-contact industries.
As wages rise (and they are rising) and the pandemic recedes with mass inoculations, some of the impediments to labor supply will self-resolve. Moreover, households on the Island have a median annual income of $71,224, which is well above the median annual income of $61,937 across the U.S.
The real problem is housing; the median property value in Dukes County is nearly three times the national average, and likely increasing. And nearly 80 percent of our housing units are owner-occupied. Said another way, rentals are scarce, which means expensive. Looking at recent data, the bulk of workers’ pay on our Island goes toward housing.
The solution, to provide affordable housing, sounds easy, but implementation is difficult. Many national employers are prohibited legally from offering housing to employees, and zoning requirements can be restrictive. The first line of defense might be to live off-Island and commute via ferry, but that is now a tough option. Cape Cod real estate is on fire, with median home prices up 29.4 percent since last year, and a rental vacancy rate at 1 percent. Some communities across the U.S. have sought to creatively expand accessory dwelling units (ADUs), where converted basements, barns, or garages increase rental inventory quickly.
This Island was hit hard economically this year by COVID-19, and business owners are beyond ready for it to be open. While there are several good efforts being debated around housing strategy, we all must work harder to merge supply and demand, or our Island economy will struggle to reopen at capacity.
In the meantime, the Island time mindset will serve you well when it comes to service and delivery. We need to be grateful for the workers we do have, as many will pull double shifts while tripling up on housing. If you are in position to tip well, so do. Be thankful, and above all else, be patient: That lobster roll, ice cream, or delivery may take a bit longer this year than it usually would.
Meghan FitzGerald is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and the author of “Ascending Davos: A Career Journey from the Emergency Room to the Boardroom.” Michael Darda is a macro strategist at MKM Partners. They both reside in Aquinnah with their Weimaraners.