An on-Island labor shortage could delay that lobster roll

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. 


  1. The reason why there are not enough employees to fill the jobs needed is due to Biden giving away money to those who dont need it and who would rather take the money and not work.

    • “due to Biden”?

      Published Wed, Aug 12 2012:38 PM EDT
      “Over the weekend, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to extend enhanced unemployment benefits at a reduced rate of $400 per week.


      If Trump was successful on Jan 6. would you consider the $400 a stroke of genius?
      “Four legs good, two legs bad.” …..

    • Andrew– So you want Biden to overturn a trump program ? That’s a first.
      I glad that you are not blaming Hillary for this one.
      If you did, you would have looked foolish.

  2. Perhaps Mr. Engelman can inform us how many of those recieving Biden payments are actually part of the foreign J-1 visa hoard that the Island depends on to fill hundreds (yes, hundreds) of jobs each summer on the Island.
    I can save him the effort. The answer is none! Maybe the real answer is the shortage is the result of the large cutbacks in the foreign worker program that were initiated under the previous administration.

  3. Mr Skydell, foreign students coming to MV to work are not receiving Biden payments but people here who could work are receiving them. Labor is fungible.

    • Trump wanted to give the unemployed an extra $400 a week starting last August, until he was reelected on Nov.3. …..

  4. The reason we need the J-1s is because we’ve never been able to fill the seasonal jobs with locals. Has nothing to do with Biden. You can debate why locals have declined to take these jobs year after year, but pinning it on Biden is false political blather. I would argue that some (many) locals don’t take these jobs, waaaaay before Biden, because the schedules happens to interfere with beach time. Definitely need the foreign workers and their strong work ethic. Mr Skydell is correct in naming the source of the shortage.

  5. Jackie and Andrew can play political ping pong until the cows come home but what I noticed even more about this article is how utterly insipid it is. A pair of academic intellectuals sipping wine at their Aquinnah home with their boutique purebred dogs at their feet (nothing against the dogs-I’m sure they’re perfectly lovely) grace us by rehashing a bunch of facts anyone who has lived on the island for more than a month is very well familiar with. They offer nothing substantial to the discussion and then end by telling us to be patient waiting for our lobster rolls. This kind of disconnected elitism is the reason a large swath of the American population has grown disgusted with the higher echelons of academia and government and has been easy pickings for demagogues.

    • The American people have the politicians they elected.
      The American people do not like well educated people.

  6. Dogs are rescues and therefore extra lovely. Been on island for nearly a decade.
    I volunteered as nurse on the front lines during Covid and taught public health at two universities. It didn’t feel very elite but the goal was to make a difference.
    Thanks for the trenchant commentary and analysis.

    • Meg, please don’t take the rantings of “Val Johnson” seriously. When someone repeatedly mocks others for their concerns for covid-unprotected children and medically at-risk individuals, as he does, it’s fair to put into perspective his bitterness toward others and INSIPID reaction here. Kindness, courtesy, and compassion are mocked by those who aren’t familiar with these positive character traits. Thank you.

    • Foot appropriately in mouth- I spoke on assumptions and ignorance. Thank you for your service. Will now retire from comments due to my foolishness.

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