‘It’s a disaster’

By on August 5, 2020

Lack of summer workers challenges OBX businesses


For the past 30 years, longtime Outer Banks businessman Nick Nuzzi has depended on J-1 Visa students to fill the bulk of positions during the summer at his two Dairy Queen locations. But with COVID-19 abruptly halting that program, coupled with other challenges that come with staffing during a pandemic, Nuzzi acknowledged that Labor Day can’t come soon enough.

“It’s forced us into a serious crunch because of no help,” he explained. At his popular Kill Devil Hills location at the corner of Ocean Bay Boulevard and U.S. 158, “we are barely able to keep two windows open,” Nuzzi said. “We can’t take care of our customers…the line never ends.”

To compensate, Nuzzi has had to significantly reduce hours of operation at his Corolla store, closing two days a week as opposed to past summers where the doors were open every day. That store, he also added, opens now at 5 p m. instead of 11 a.m. In addition, he is regularly paying a skeleton crew overtime and has raised the hourly wage at his ice cream shops in order to attract more applicants.

“I’ve never seen times like these,” he said.

In recent years, the lack of workforce housing has become a growing obstacle to recruiting summer workers for local businesses. But in the summer of 2020, with the COVID-pandemic keeping the usual J-1 students from coming here and some other workers opting out because of concerns about the virus, things are being pushed to a breaking point. In response, a handful of businesses have closed permanently while others have reduced hours to survive — even as visitors have flooded the Outer Banks since the bridges were opened in May.

“It’s a disaster,” declared Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce President Karen Brown. “Everyone is really struggling. Restaurants that were always open seven days a week are now closed one or two days a week.”

“We’re basically hiring anybody who’s employable when they come through the door,” explained Karen Loopman-Davis, one of the owners of the Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills. She estimates that in past years, the restaurant could easily receive 50 applications during the summer months. This year, only about five or six have trickled in.

Like Nuzzi, the Outer Banks Brewing Station also depends on the J-1s, having employed about 10 students from that program last summer. Normally, according to Brown, Dare County sees an influx of about 1,700 overseas students each summer, with many holding two jobs.

The Brewing Station is also now closed one day a week to accommodate scheduling challenges, Loopman-Davis said, adding that the housing crisis “started this whole thing, and then the pandemic just put the exclamation point at the end.”

Karla Hutchins, who owns Country Deli in Kill Devil Hills with her husband, Mark, shared a similar story with the Voice about staffing difficulties amidst a COVID-19 reality. Short on staff, the deli has kept its dining room closed this summer and has had to reduce daily hours and delivery availability.

“It’s just not feasible with the amount of help we have,” Hutchins said, noting that the deli has certainly lost business because of the reduced hours and people wanting to dine in the restaurant or have their orders delivered.

“There is no one to work those extra hours,” she noted.  “We have a skeleton staff and are surviving literally on five amazing high school students. They have been rock stars.”

Outer Banks Restaurant Association President Dan Lewis echoed the sentiments of Brown and others. He said that due to the county shutdown this spring, there wasn’t the normal influx of seasonal employees from out of the area. The federal stimulus package also played a role.

“Besides the legitimate safety concern of going back to work in what is traditionally tight quarters and lots of close contact with other people, it was also more economically viable for employees to stay home isolated and collecting benefits,” Lewis offered, adding that the loss of J-1 Visa students also “exacerbated the labor shortage.”

On the flip side, Lewis noted that since most colleges are going to remote learning in the fall, “there may be some employees who stick around to work past mid-August.”

However, some students who are returning to campus are leaving earlier than usual so that colleges can get a semester under their belt before Thanksgiving. Both the College of the Albemarle and Dare County Schools are also returning to school, although remotely, a week earlier beginning on August 17.

As August creeps along, Hutchins says business owners are asking for forgiveness from their customers regarding the trimming of services. “We are just keeping our head up and getting through this year,” she said.

And for his business, Nuzzi estimates he is down two-thirds in sales this summer. “It’s because of help, not a lack of people being here,” he acknowledged. And while he plans on keeping his shop open in Kill Devil Hills into the fall, of the Corolla shop where workers are especially hard to come by, he said, “The lights are going off come Labor Day.”


  • James

    Also put how much you are paying in your help wanted listing. If you are offering a really good wage then post it. People will scan the help wanted listings and stop and read a job listing that shows good money way before one that doesn’t list how much it’s paying.

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 9:07 am
  • Jake Jones

    New headline:
    “Local businesses generously offering the lowest pay legally possible SHOCKED that no one wants to work for them.”

    One local business owner stated the following: “We have to start paying fair livable wages to get people to work for us – it’s an absolute disaster and completely unreasonable.”

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 9:30 am
  • Scott

    And this is what they get for hiring J-1’s at a cheaper rate than locals would do it for, thus pushing locals out. Then on top of that, they “rent” housing to these people, sometimes cramming four to a room in a multi room house, getting even more of their money back in their pockets. Hope the bed they made is comfortable.

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 9:48 am
  • Ashley

    All I can say is suffer jerks!!! You got yourself into this mess by being greedy and exploiting your work force and a local housing market that has allowed owners to price first time home buyers and renters completely out of the market. You’ve been pushing pro business trickle down economics since the 80s and it’s abundantly clear at this point that nothing but crumbs are trickling down to the workers that makes it possible for your businesses to function. You’ve elected county, state and national political leaders that have done almost nothing to address the crisis of affordable housing or wage stagnation. You propped it all up for years now by exploiting young foreign workers while supporting politicians who blame all of the ills of America on immigrant workers.

    30 years ago it was a little different at least. When I was in high school I worked year round, full time in the summer and part time in the winter. Most of my friends and fellow students worked just as hard as I did whether their families were well off or not. There were no J-1 visa students where I worked. The managers were all in middle age, and the associates were all either high school students, college students, or middle aged too and they were all locals. Back then most of us lived in families that could find a rental home that we could afford somewhere in Dare County and if not there then at least in Currituck County. It wasn’t an ideal situation even then. A lot of us were already on the edge, but we found a way to make it work. Since that time business owners and property owners have done everything they can to squeeze more and more profit out of their workers and their businesses while giving less and less back to the people that make it all possible. And now these business owners, having built an unsustainable system want us to feel sorry for them because of it? It’s not only unlikely it’s flat out delusional to believe that people who are struggling to survive, pay their bills and put food on the table are going to give two figs about some business owner not being able to find some poor foreigner to exploit with substandard housing and minimum wage.

    You’ve all sowed the wind now you can reap the whirlwind you’ve sown just like the rest of us.

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 3:31 pm
  • hightider

    This work force problem has been going on many years before COVID. Lots of people with zero job skills want to be paid more than they are worth for unskilled labor. Several years ago I read where a Dare County crab company had to import workers from Mexico (where people are dying to work) because his longtime local seasonal workforce was now too old to work. And young people didn’t want to pick crabmeat in an airconditioned building. I agree with the commenter who said we have too many junky tee shirt and souvenir shops anyway and who needs DQ? These are jobs for HS students and teens, not adults trying to make ends meet with no skills beyond scooping ice cream, carrying a tray, or ringing up some tourist junk.

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 7:24 pm
  • J from the Bay

    COVID aside, did you know that the President quashed the J-1 visa June 22, 2020. True story.

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 8:43 pm
  • Miguel

    Jake, Scott, and Ashley nailed it. It’s preposterous to believe that it’s okay to pay workers a pittance while simultaneously gouging them on housing. And this has been going on for decades. In the early 2000s, I knew a worker who lived in a 3 bedroom, rundown townhouse crammed with 13 other people. Their rent? $3600 a month. Sorry, but on the Outer Banks in 2020, based on the cost of food and rent, $10 or $12 an hour to host or wash dishes is not even close to fair. And $2.01/hr + tips has not been a criminal wage for servers for at least 30 years. But, I digress, because Ashley beautifully laid out all that is wrong on the OBX, and across the country. Not to worry…change is coming.

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 10:39 pm
  • Miguel

    Correction: $2.01 + tips HAS been a criminal wage for at least 30 years.

    Thursday, Aug 6 @ 10:42 pm
  • Jonathan F.

    Ashley from yesterday hit it dead on the head ! Things 25-30 yrs. ago weren’t perfect, but I worked 60, 70 sometimes 80 hrs a week @ Southern Ice Co. and still had a part-time gig @ Osprey Island Bar & Grill. I loved living behind the Beach Barn although rent seemed tough (850.00/mo) back then. Today, if I got a job at the new ice co., worked the same hours and still did p/t @ Osprey I could never live in that house behind the Beach Barn b/c it would be 22, 25 maybe $2800.00/mo. or more !! It’s crazy expensive there now !! I’ve been wanting to move back for yrs. now, but I can’t find anywhere affordable. It’s a shame, because I truly miss my home !!! Anybody who honestly needs a good referenced tenant that’s a mature, non-partying 50 yr. old then feel free to contact me so we can talk. I’m coming to find work and housing, so no reason we shouldn’t have it work for both of us !

    Friday, Aug 7 @ 12:44 am
  • Frank

    Locals anyone? I’m quite certain they want to work.

    Friday, Aug 7 @ 1:21 am
  • Human Utensil for the Rich

    Jake, Scott, Ashley, y’all nailed it!! Everything written is 100% true.
    I really enjoy it when local business owners use The Voice to weep about their problems maintaining their wealth.
    I was part of the OBX labor force for 45 years. ( now semi-retired )
    And I was reminded daily The Golden Rule.
    Those with the Gold make the rules

    Friday, Aug 7 @ 8:23 am
  • surf123

    I am familiar with J-1 workers and the supposed great opportunity they get to come to the US. The J-1 scam starts with the idea a business cannot find any workers, which is because they are not willing to pay a decent wage. They work around this by crying to the government who lets them import cheap foreign labor. These laborers go to job fairs in their home countries and if hired pay a finders fee to company placing them + roundtrip travel expenses + all living expenses in the US. For that they get a job at the lowest paying rate, which they cannot change or quit, and with what are most likely crappy living accommodations.

    From the ones I have spoken with the break even day is in early August. They finish their work having saved enough of their pittance to visit NYC, LA, etc. and then return to their home country. As close to slave labor as you can legally get that could be avoided if business owners were willing to pay a living wage and parents made sure their kids worked summers like most anyone older than 30 did. With very few exceptions summer jobs do not turn into careers, but they do teach valuable life lessons.Before relocating here I worked some crappy jobs up the beach with barely tolerable living conditions. It was fun to be out from under the thumb of my parents and completely responsible for myself. It did not take too long to figure out education is the way to maximize your earnings potential and do what you want to for a living. Unfortunately standard operating procedure since the 2000’s started is parents whose kids have never worked a single day and probably will not until they graduate from college. Even then they might move in to avoid diving into the workplace. It’s a real shame.

    For reference the cruise industry uses a similar model, but avoids US labor laws by flagging their ships in the Bahamas or other cruise ship friendly countries.

    Friday, Aug 7 @ 9:49 am
  • anotherobxman

    Forced to raise wages to attract workers….oh, the HORROR.

    Friday, Aug 7 @ 12:02 pm
  • Sean Mulligan

    When I was a kid in the 70’s we did those jobs.The season in VB started Memorial Day and was over Labor Day.I knew those jobs would never pay decent wages and were seasonal as well.I went to college and went into a profession that paid decent wages in my position.I have no idea how many kids work through HS and College these days. So my question is How much is a living wage?

    Friday, Aug 7 @ 3:26 pm
  • Sharky Mcpeterson

    If you like that business owners are forced to hire American then vote Trump. If you want these jobs to go to someone from another country while Americans sit unemployed because the foreigner works for less than the American can afford to work for you are a liberal and you are part of the problem.

    Friday, Aug 7 @ 6:57 pm
  • OBX concerned

    The fact is the state is paying some of your potential workers $300.00 a week, and the Federal another $600.00 to not go to work isn’t helping.

    Get rid of the $600.00 Federal bribe, and see how quick you have workers

    Saturday, Aug 8 @ 7:34 am
  • Tom W.

    I earned a college degree in my trade, countless years of experience and paid for addition training and certifications.
    I find it offensive that there are those who put forth little to no effort and yet demand wages that they clearly are not worth. I also find it offensive when employers don’t want to pay decent wages for those who are some of the best at what they do.
    What to do: Open ALL businesses up. Stop foreigners from taking American jobs. History proves that free market always balances itself out.

    Saturday, Aug 8 @ 9:01 am
  • Maddie

    I was encouraged by the person running the J-1 program here to clean out my nasty garage and install several sets of bunk beds during the summer. This person told me I could charge each student $100 a week. “Just think if you had four sets of bunks that’s $800 a week!” I was told all I needed to provide was a bathroom and a bed and they would keep every bed filled with foreign students all summer. I declined. It’s not how I would want to be treated in a foreign country.

    Saturday, Aug 8 @ 10:47 am
  • James rush

    This issue is far more complicated than those blaming Trump and the J1 visa program. “OBX concerned” hit it on the head with the unemployment handout of $900 per week; of whom I know many that prefer to sitting home than working. I wish I had been laid off myself. They prefer this than to taking the “full time w/ benefits” jobs available where I work paying $14 to $18 per hour. Health insurance (80%), 10 paid holidays, overtime paid 1.5. Of course; no college degree required, not even a high school education. Just have a few maintenance skills and be willing to show up on time without a cocktail mix of drugs in your system. Want to work for $20 hour (with no higher skillset; move to Norfolk or even better Washington, DC. Oh sorry, they didn’t tell you the low end rents are about $4000/ month for a small house.

    Saturday, Aug 8 @ 3:27 pm
  • Currituck Reader

    Democrats have been pushing for workers rights and wages ($15 minimum wage ring a bell? Unions?) for decades. The J-1 program is heavily supported by those interested in cheap labor to augment profits, not workers.

    Therefore, if you want to support hiring American, draw your own conclusions.

    Sunday, Aug 9 @ 7:07 am