OBX businesses prepare for a short-handed summer 

By on April 24, 2021

Labor crunch may impact everything from hours to service


Mark Ballog, owner of Lucky 12 Tavern in Nags Head for the past 16 years, remembers working summers on the Outer Banks some 30 years ago. “We would walk into Sun Realty and they would have a binder full [of summer rentals]. There were tons of houses, you could decide you didn’t want to live on the west side, you wanted to live close to the ocean,” he recalled. Now, he notes, “there’s no books to pick and choose from.”

The seasonal rental market has long since dried up and along with it, so have the applications for summer help. “If you have a place to stay, you’ve got a place to work,” says Brent Hill, owner of Jack Brown’s Burger Joint in Kill Devil Hills.

The problem is, there is no place to stay.

Making matters more dire as the 2021 summer season approaches is the prolonged COVID-19 crisis coupled with the uncertainty over when and how many international students under the U.S. Department of State’s J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program will be able to secure visas. During a typical summer, more than 1,700 of these students arrive on the Outer Banks to fill seasonal employment vacancies. But delays are causing a backlog of student interviews at U.S. embassies overseas, a requirement to obtain a visa.

This perfect storm has left Outer Banks businesses bracing for a record number of visitors this season as “Help Wanted” signs are taped to storefronts. Alongside those signs, or posted at some registers, are notices reminding customers to please be patient with the short-handed crew many businesses are operating with.

Businesses have reported to the Voice being short anywhere from five employees to as many as a dozen or so – forcing them to consider cutting back on hours of operation, paring menu items and doing away with takeout orders to keep up with the demand.

According to Jeannie Maynard of Jolly Roger Restaurant, the popular Kill Devil Hills beach road restaurant is short 15 to 20 workers. In an email response to the Voice, Maynard said the current unemployment benefits have exacerbated the employee shortage.

“A few people apply, but when they are called for an interview, most of the time [they] have voice mails that aren’t set up,” she said. “We follow up with a text and they still don’t answer.”

Tracey Stamp, owner of Dazzles Gift Boutique and OBX Sugar Shack in Duck, said that she and other business owners she’s talked to have scheduled interviews only to have the applicants not show up. Stamp said she currently has one employee at Dazzles other than herself.

“I usually [close the shop] with the sunset and right now, but because I’m trying to stop from getting burnt out before the actual summer gets here, I’ve been closing at 5:30 p.m.”

It’s McGrath’s Burger Shack’s debut season in Nags Head, according to owner Ashley McGrath. But in an email response to the Voice, she noted that as of mid-April, the restaurant has had few applications and could use between eight and 10 employees.

“We initially planned on being open seven days a week like we do at every other location we have,” she noted, pointing to the lack of affordable housing and the current unemployment requirements as the biggest barriers to filling vacancies. “We will now be closed Sundays and Mondays.”

The rise in home sales on the Outer Banks during the COVID pandemic has further stressed the already depleted rental market, impacting not only seasonal workers, but year-round professionals as well.

A recent reminder was a post on the Outer Banks Hospital’s Facebook page that sought units to rent for its employees: “Unfortunately, our Team Members are not immune to the current housing crunch. Over the past several weeks multiple front line healthcare workers here at the Outer Banks Hospital and Medical Group have lost their long-term rentals and cannot find a new place to call home.”

In their attempt to solve at least part of the problem, the Town of Nags Head this week released a Request for Information (RFI) seeking information from private entities regarding how they could provide housing for the Town’s seasonal Ocean Rescue lifeguard staff, a third of which is made up of international students.

“Given the housing demands associated with the tourism-based economy, increases in the Town’s permanent population, and the growth in the use of short-term rental platforms, the ability to secure necessary housing presents challenges for lifeguards and the Town, conditions that change annually,” read an April 23 press release announcing the town’s RFI request.

Several years ago, Jack Brown’s owner Brent Hill and his family moved out of their year-round home and into a rental so that he could house the J-1 visa students he depends on to flesh out his year-round crew that keeps the restaurant running. Lucky 12’s Ballog has also purchased property so he could provide housing for the J-1 students he employs each summer.

Ballog and Hill are anticipating about a half dozen students coming to work for them this summer, but due to the work travel program delays and barriers due to the pandemic, he is uncertain whether, and when, the students will arrive.

“I’m hopeful that we will get our J-1s coming in,” Hill said. “If we don’t, I’m not interested in burning out the staff that I need and have all year long, which means that we’ll just shorten our hours, whether that’s closing two days or whether it’s closing for lunch…whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to manage it so that our crew has a decent quality of life in the midst of some craziness.”

Clay Lewis is an Employer & Community Engagement Manager at InterExchange, the New York-based agency that places a number of international work-study students in jobs on the Outer Banks. He noted that there is a significant backlog when it comes to issuing J-1 visas abroad, and still some COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“In addition to the visa backlog that’s going on right now, there are still some travel restrictions that are currently impacting students’ abilities from certain countries to travel to the US,” Lewis noted. “These [visa interview] appointment slots have been very limited, and we need these visas to be prioritized.”

The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce and Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, along with local businesses, have signed on a letter to President Joe Biden asking that the State Department not require J-1 students who participated in the program in 2019 and 2020 to personally appear at their embassies for interviews as part of their visa process. The hope is that it will speed that process.

For Jamie Banjak, chair of the Outer Banks International Student Outreach Program (ISOP), the seasonal employee shortage the Outer Banks is experiencing is no surprise.

“We are in the middle of a crisis we knew was coming,” says Banjak, who told the Voice that the local infrastructure does not attract a seasonal workforce — citing the lack affordable housing, the absence of public transportation as well as the distance from an airport.

She added that the Outer Banks has to compete with many other domestic destinations international students may be interested in. “What are we doing to court the workforce?” she asked. “There is not infrastructure here for that all. If we are not going to build it, they are not going to come.”

The Jolly Roger, which prides itself on never closing, was forced to cut hours beginning this month.

“We have always been the one place that was open every day but have had to close a half a day on Sunday and a half a day on Monday,” Jolly Roger’s Maynard noted. “Between the unemployment offering and the lack of housing available here, all businesses are being terribly impacted. There needs to be affordable housing in order for the OBX to continue being a very popular vacation destination. Without the businesses here, there would be no vacation.”

To illustrate the situation businesses are currently in, Tracey Stamp said an adjacent business owner has a sign on the door that reads, “If you can’t be patient and kind, don’t bother coming in. We are doing the best we can under the current situation.”

“Everyone says it’s going to be a great summer and we have a million people headed our way,” she adds. “But I don’t know if we’re prepared enough to where they’re going to come back. I think they’re going to get frustrated and angry and upset, and they’re not going to come back. So we could be hurting ourselves with this.”





  • Mary

    Amen Michael…Visitors WILL COME! More than ever! This summer should be very interesting…I feel sorry for the workforce…it’s not going to pleasant. Housing has been an issue for years and no one has addressed it. Just another example of how the Outer Banks has outgrown itself and will never be the same. Very sad indeed!

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 2:52 pm
  • Frustrated

    I am disappointed that a local news source would publish something with such bias. That attitude of “why would anyone do hard work when they could just sit on their couch and collect unemployment?”

    I don’t know ONE SINGLE PERSON sitting on their butt living off unemployment but I do know more people than I can count on both hands who are employed and looking for housing or worried they will lose their housing. When we talk about a housing shortage for year-round workers, we are CLEARLY talking about people who actually hold one or more jobs, and not those individuals who don’t show up for interviews or who hop around from job to job (I understand these do exist). But OBVIOUSLY if you don’t have a decent, steady job… no landlord is going to lease to you anyway, nor can you afford $1,000+ a month so this constant argument of we have no workers because no one wants to work hard is completely irrelevant and makes the area look like we have nothing but lowlife drug addicts living here. It’s time we knock it off.

    I guarantee every single person who reads this article knows at least ONE EMPLOYED and hard working person who could afford housing IF it just existed. We have a great workforce of locals and newcomers who work multiple jobs, pay local taxes, and want to make this community great… yet, there are literally no homes for them to live in.

    Perhaps next time, the Voice could conduct a poll of employed workers who need housing and get a true reflection of the problem here (asking income range, # of jobs, how long they’ve lived in the area, why they need housing, and how long they’ve been looking).

    For every 10 to 15 workers, there is maybe 1 unit available that is probably run down and is being rented out for 25%+ over its true value. THIS is the problem on the Outer Banks: not the quality of workers but the quantity (and quality) of housing available.

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 3:22 pm
  • Lance Manly

    On the other hand they could actually increase wages…

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 6:45 pm
  • Kevin

    Here’s another take from the perspective of unemployment being a problem. Once upon a time there was an OBX restaurant, who said, “Hey go tell your local high school friends, if they come bus tables I’ll pay $100/night and they get a free shift meal.” No takers. Story #2: a guy told an entire high school team he would pay $40 each for up the first 2 bodies to respond to help needed lift a few heavy things and it might take 20 or 30 minutes. No takers. There is a mindset of a certain entitlement amongst the age group of capable emerging workers.

    Monday, Apr 26 @ 10:15 am
  • I’m with Frustrated

    I’ve got to agree with Frustrated and Lance… People are going to do what makes the most financial sense for them. If they can stay home, save on childcare and transportation costs, and make MORE money than they could working themselves to the bone and running themselves ragged, why on EARTH would they decide to run themselves ragged?

    And UI isn’t the problem. With as many seasonal-only jobs as we have, it’s sorely needed. Add to that the fact that NC already has some of the stingiest UI in the country, and it becomes clear that the problem is wage stagnation that has snowballed together with the housing crunch.

    Perhaps instead of talking about convention centers, Nags Head should consider constructing housing. Or Dare County could purchase the old Waterfall Park site (or the old Salvo Marina site or Pamlico Station, which would be relatively straightforward to convert and is conveniently for sale right now…) and construct housing. Maybe tax incentives could be offered for larger hotels who convert several rooms to long term housing, or to contractors who construct a certain number of really, truly affordable units for every X number of vacation homes they build (lookin at you, Saga…).

    Yes, all of these construction projects would come at a loss, certainly short-term, and certainly with the current price of materials. But long-term, they would pay off in increased tax revenue for the county.

    Or maybe, just maybe, raising wages or offering incentives to employers who pay more would make it worth it for people to work and be able to find housing for themselves and their families.

    There are no easy answers. You can’t tell someone not to get the highest and best use from their real property. And if that’s renting through Airbnb or selling to the highest bidder, you can’t tell someone not to do that. But you can find ways to make other options more palatable and attractive.

    Monday, Apr 26 @ 11:08 am
  • WMH

    “For every 10 to 15 workers, there is maybe 1 unit available…” I have to disagree on these numbers. I am on two Facebook Housing groups (there are several more) and there are literally THOUSANDS looking for housing right now. For every unit we personally advertise, we get an average of 75 inquiries within days. 227 in just April alone and it’s not over yet. Everyone has a heartbreaking story of losing their long-term rental home to either a private sale or a conversion to AirBnB. Others talk of being unable to accept a coveted job or internship. And it’s not just a lack of *affordable* housing. There are almost no long-term rentals available at any price, and virtually no summer housing at all unless provided by an employer. It will get worse. As long-time housing providers sell off their rentals during this boom, their rentals are being converted to private homes, and at prices that will probably ensure they will never profitable as a rental again. It’s a true crisis.

    Monday, Apr 26 @ 11:14 am
  • Bob

    I believe the unemployment issue mentioned is that of extended and higher paying unemployment offerings that have sprung up since the pandemic began. I have heard of companies that laid people off when things were slow at the beginning of the pandemic and then having problems getting them to come back to work because they were making as much or more on unemployment…having to do things like sending certified letters to force their hand. Would you want to work if you could make just as much sitting at home on your butt watching TV?

    Monday, Apr 26 @ 11:25 am
  • Steven

    It all started with greed and will end in demise. Greedy restaurant owners, greedy real estate people then developers getting elected to local government. Whoop there it is.

    Tuesday, Apr 27 @ 8:55 pm
  • John

    There is only one thing to blame for the demise of “summer help” and that is greed. No one making minimum wage can afford a beach rental these days. Once upon a time, business owners would rent their own summer properties to temporary workers. But then owners found out that by placing their freshly painted shacks and sheds on Airbnb and VRBO, they could make way more money off tourists than they ever could summer workers. So don’t blame laziness or unemployment or anything else for the problems that only greed has created. Either up the wages or drop the rent. There’s your only fix.

    Thursday, Apr 29 @ 4:25 pm
  • Bud

    The developers are the ultimate destroyers. Intent on ruining all of the outer banks..

    Friday, Apr 30 @ 5:44 am
  • Larry

    Raise the wages or drop the rent!

    Friday, Apr 30 @ 11:56 am
  • Louise

    This is a sad situation. I called a popular pizza restaurant at 5:15 tonight. Wanted delivery or takeout. They couldn’t do it. Said there was 100 orders ahead of me. Said they had no help. Said they could use 20 employees right now. If I knew of anyone, please send them their way. This is very disheartening. No place to live for the people who want jobs here. I have lived here 45 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Gonna be a rough summer. Sigh…

    Friday, Apr 30 @ 8:28 pm
  • Bud

    This is a good thing, we should not be catering to this amount of tourists anyway.

    Saturday, May 1 @ 5:55 am
  • Lynn

    Need public transportation, like a bus, to bring workers from other local areas, like Elizabeth City.

    Sunday, May 2 @ 11:34 am
  • Jody

    Certainly there are children and grandchildren of working age that live in the NRPO homes during the summer. If they would sign up for at least part time jobs, this could alleviate some of the unfilled positions. Many years ago, I worked summers at the Jersey shore. Most all my coworkers were living in homes owned or rented by parents, grandparents, or other family. You considered yourself lucky if you got hired for a summer job.

    Tuesday, May 4 @ 6:57 am
  • Stan Clough

    “jody”, sounds like an actual way to help make our community feel we are actually part of something not just a number on a chart. Want to live here ? Go to work !

    Wednesday, May 5 @ 12:50 am
  • Jare

    I bet if the pizza place offered 20 dollars an hour and proudly advertised it instead of saying “competitive pay” (which seems like a thinly veiled attempt to get people in front of them and then feel out how little they can get away with paying them), I bet they could get some dough slingers in there. 1 pizza at a restaurant costs around 20 bucks…the math seems to work out.

    When you are advertising for a retail or service job, just state your wages. No one is coming to work for you for the culture. They are either here for the summer or trying to make a living and find a way to survive on this beach. Either way, just recognize that we are in an employee’s market and put your money where your mouth is. Once the other pizza places continue to get strangled, you’ll be doing 250 pizzas a night and earning a decent living for the people who are helping you do the same.

    Saturday, May 8 @ 12:09 am