By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on April 24, 2021
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.”