Doug Abdelnour, owner of Nancy’s Restaurant and Nomans in Oak Bluffs, said he has been having difficulty finding the help he needs. Abdelnour said both restaurants are struggling to employ back-end workers, such as dishwashers and food runners. Abdelnour said filling positions has become harder during the past 10 years. He is offering around $20 to $25 an hour in hopes of attracting more workers. This year saw the lowest number of applications he’s seen.
The summer season is upon Martha’s Vineyard. According to the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, the Island has a year-round population of 17,000 that can swell up to 200,000 people during the summer. To accommodate the increase in demand, businesses on the Island need seasonal workers to fill the gaps. The increase of tourists means more income for businesses, but it comes with a catch. Martha’s Vineyard is facing a labor shortage.
The Times wrote about the anticipated mix of a labor shortage and increased tourists in April, and it appears the fears of fewer workers this summer are coming true.
Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, said that the Island usually has up to 4,000 jobs available every summer. In particular, the need for employees could be seen in house cleaning, landscaping, busing tables, and other restaurant positions this year. The Island’s year-round population of eligible workers is not large enough to meet this need, so businesses typically relied on seasonal foreign workers who would come in through work visas, such as H-2B or J-1 programs.
The foreign worker ban passed by former President Donald Trump ended in March, but it is still difficult to get the needed workers to the Island. According to Gardella, many consulates remain closed, forcing delays on visas. This puts a “terrible bind” on employers. Gardella said consulates are beginning to open up again, but the visa process may mean workers will not be able to make it in time for the summer season. According to the Johns Hopkins Office of International Services, a J-1 visa can take up to around four months to process. Additionally, Gardella said, visa applicants would need to go through COVID safety measures, which takes up even more time on top of the lengthy visa process.
These conditions mean that employers cannot rely on foreign workers. Gardella said businesses on the Island are trying to recruit from the local pool of eligible workers for the summer, especially high school students. However, Gardella said the usage of young Islanders and retirees is not a long-term solution, due to numbers and willingness. “There is a challenge with each population,” said Gardella.
Gardella said there are still not enough people to fill all of the positions. Some employers are offering higher wages or incentives to recruit workers. “I think they are getting creative,” said Gardella.
Businesses on the Island will be competing to attract the employees they need from a limited pool of workers. Both Stop & Shop locations in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown are looking for workers. A representative of Stop & Shop said in an email they are hoping to fill a total of 150 positions at the Martha’s Vineyard locations. Maria Fruci, spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said in an email the Martha’s Vineyard Stop & Shops “have housing opportunities to assist with our staffing needs for both store locations.”
“Given the anticipated increase in visitors during the summer months, we’re looking to hire additional associates to assist with our stores’ operations so that we can continue to deliver the same great service that our local customers, shopping with us year-round, expect,” said Fruci.
The lack of workers is forcing some places to adjust hours and positions. The Cumberland Farms in Vineyard Haven was forced to cut operating hours because they did not have enough people to cover shifts. Instead of closing at midnight, Cumberland Farms is closing at 10 pm.
“As is the case with retail throughout the country, the labor situation is a challenge right now, and the Vineyard Haven store has temporarily changed its closing time to 10 pm instead of midnight,” said Sean Hennessey, senior vice president of public relations for the Castle Group, the public relations agency representing Cumberland Farms. “We hope to be able to resume our regular hours very soon.”
Abdelnour said he decreased the number of managers, and these employees were moved around to other positions. He plans to close Nomans on Tuesdays to give his staff some breathing room from the work. Abdelnour also plans to close Nomans at 8 instead of 10 pm.
Others are a bit more optimistic about the labor situation. Tony Bregh, a manager at Porto Pizza in Vineyard Haven, said the restaurant will soon extend store hours so that it closes at 9 instead of 8 pm. While short on staff, Bregh said he expects more people to apply for positions in the coming weeks.
Stanley Larsen, owner of Menemsha Fish Market, said help is starting to come in now. However, the main issue Larsen has is finding housing for employees who need it. For now, Larsen is working with what he has. “We get up earlier and work harder,” said Larsen.
Abdelnour also said housing is an issue for employers and employees. The wages Abdelnour can pay people are not enough for some of the room rentals, which he said can cost up to $2,000 a month. Abdelnour said he tries to find more affordable housing for his employees who need it, but it is difficult. “Housing is worse than ever before,” said Abdelnour. “Many [workers] share places that don’t even have kitchens.”
Not all businesses are affected to the same extent by Martha’s Vineyard’s labor shortage. Businesses requiring smaller staff or that have family that can help are not feeling the same pinch.
According to Bennett Macdougall, an employee of Coop’s Bait & Tackle in Edgartown, the store has not been feeling the hit of a staffing shortage. Five employees work at the store, so Macdougall said, “We’ve been pretty set.”
The COVID pandemic actually helped Coop’s Bait & Tackle. Macdougall said business increased during the pandemic, since there wasn’t much for people to do. Fishing is an activity a person can do outside while safely social distancing.
Anderson’s Bike Rentals in Oak Bluffs is another business that did not feel the labor shortage, although it did have difficulty acquiring parts and products. Gretchen Anderson, the owner of the business, said she has high school and college student relatives that work for her during the summer months. This allowed her to get the help she needed for the tourist season. During the off-season, the business is managed by only Anderson and her sister.
Abdelnour said he thinks the simultaneous opening up of the state and continuance of the unemployment checks is a big part of what keeps people from coming back to work. “There’s some confusion there. I think the percentage of people who are collecting unemployment is affecting people doing ‘the right thing’ and coming back to work. You can’t have both,” said Abdelnour. He also thinks COVID may have negatively affected people’s work ethics because of the environment it created, such as work-from-home.
Massachusetts’ COVID assistance programs are planned to end in September. According to CNET, Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi, and Missouri ended their assistance programs early so people would go find work. More states are expected to follow suit in the following weeks.
A survey done by Quinnipiac University Poll showed that 54 percent of Americans are in favor of “cutting off the additional $300 in federal unemployment benefits months early.” From those surveyed, 89 percent among Republicans, 54 percent among independent voters, and 32 percent among Democrats agreed with these measures.
Gardella said the staffing situation is difficult for employers, but still better than 2020, when a number of businesses faced the danger of closing their doors. Businesses are “ready and eager” to serve customers, but the staffing issue hinders operations. Even so, businesses cannot compromise on customer service, which they go out of their way to achieve.
The experience of the places visitors spend their time in is very important. ”Bad customer service reflects badly on the Island,” said Gardella.
Gardella said this summer will be another year like no other. This summer will be jammed, but not enough workers will accommodate the seasonal population boom. People are eager to come to the Island.
“Main streets were jammed, and it wasn’t even fully summer yet,” said Gardella about the Island in May.