OBX businesses prepare for a short-handed summer 

By on April 24, 2021

Labor crunch may impact everything from hours to service

(iStock)

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.”

 

 

 




Comments

  • Carolyn Dewey

    I think all of these articles will be helpful to visitors as they will plan on more meals prepared at their rental homes. Unfortunately, if restaurants can’t keep up with the demand, it will mean a drop in business to levels that they can keep up with. In my opinion, it would be better for businesses to reduce hours and provide good service then to keep their hours and be forced to provide sub par service. People accepted it last year, but probably not another year.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 11:26 am
  • Patrik

    Friends, business owners. The only way to have your loyal workers (locals as well as seasonal international students) is to provide them housing. I know some of us are/were providing the housing already, so for the rest, that’s the way. If you want to survive, you have to invest in yourself and buy house/houses depend on the size of your business. I have received tons of emails and phone calls but all our options are full already and

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 12:42 pm
  • Psy ops

    YOU voted for this.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 12:44 pm
  • moe.ron

    Interesting that not a single owner mentioned raising wages to attract employees. Law of supply and demand – Econ 101

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 12:47 pm
  • Patrik

    Friends, business owners. The only way to have your loyal workers (locals as well as seasonal international students) is to provide them housing. I know some of us are/were providing the housing already, so for the rest, that’s the way. If you want to survive, you have to invest in yourself and buy house/houses depend on the size of your business. I have received tons of emails and phone calls but all our options are full already…

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 12:48 pm
  • Mike P

    Just one example:
    According to the OBX Dairy Queen online info https://www.dairyqueenobx.com/international-summer-jobs they charge J-1 workers 13.50 per day or $405.00 per month each for a bed in one room shared by 4 people or $1620.00 per month for one room in a house.
    Assuming a 3 BR house that’s $4860 per month rent that the owner of the OBX Dairy Queen is charging workers to live here while they work for a house that would have normally rented for under $1600.00 total per month so they are not providing housing out of the goodness of their heart.
    I have absolutely no sympathy for these types of business owners.
    Also very few if any business owners pay a living wage to their full time employees and pretty sure a scant few provide health insurance.
    Looks like the high times for the business owners has come to an end. With that said there are some hard working business owners that do live modestly. There are also some that do not at the workers expense.
    Perhaps it’s time for a new business model that actually takes care of the workers.
    People would be willing to commute if the pay and benefits were higher.

    P.S. Jamie Banjak look around, a restaurant not being open 7 days a week is not what any reasonable person should consider a crisis in 2021.

    Peace

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 1:15 pm
  • surf123

    This is a self-imposed problem caused by not paying decent wages. Businesses have ridden the backs of the foreign workers to get buy instead of paying for Americans. The foreigners with work visas are basically indentured servants who work through early August just to break even on their costs of getting here and finder’s fee (to the company who matched them with a job). the rest of August and September are to save money for trips before they are shipped back to their home country.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 1:48 pm
  • chaser

    the houses are here they are now airbnb and vbros instead.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 2:08 pm
  • outerbanxer

    If restaurants (or any business) provided a reasonable wage compensation, employment wouldn’t be an issue here.

    I can think of one restaurant right now that doesn’t have employment issues. Care to guess why? That owner pays his employees a fair wage, and his menu charges accordingly. Yes a steak, sides and a beer costs 50$.

    The business model of 5.99 all you can eat breakfast ended in 2009.

    Welcome to inflation, comrades.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 2:11 pm
  • Deb

    Why don’t the businesses look into running shuttles from Tyrell and Currituck into OBX for employees who don’t require housing?

    Affordable housing is a problem in every vacation location and there is a limit to what can be built on the beach so focus on the areas adjacent to the beach and figure out how to build housing there and provide rides.

    Anybody else have a new idea? We aren’t going to solve this with the same old complaints and suggestions.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 3:15 pm
  • Michael

    Are they going to come back??? Hahaha . Oh yes believe me, they will always come back. More and more and more. Last year people said, because of the bridge closings, they aren’t gonna come here. People posted on social media, we aren’t coming there again. What happened?? Lined up at midnight in currituck to come in. The housing issue is a major issue, but please understand, that they Will ALWAYS come back. Busier and more crazy here every year. I’m thankful for the ones who depend on it. I’m not saying anything about that. Just stating a fact. There’s an obsession that grows and grows for this place. A shortage of visitors here will never be a problem. Ever again lol

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 5:39 pm
  • Travis

    Surely ours is not the first community to face this housing and workforce challenge. So what did they do in other locals?
    I think Mike P hit the nail on the head. Dairy Queen is probably not an isolated example of owner greed standing in the way of a solution. Businesses trying to make a buck off their own employees harkens back to the old company store days. Jamming a ton of kids into a rental has been going on for a long time. But there is no way they should each wind up shouldering the burden of housing as if they had the place to themselves.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 6:10 pm
  • Dan Hudson

    Dear Mike P – as a retired small business owner I can attest that we are only responsible for what happens inside our four walls. The idea that a small business can handle a “living wage?”, housing, health care and whatever else the Communists are expecting these days is literally insane. We focus on a product, service, concept or idea… that will improve on what already exists – it’s called Capitalism. What you desire is called Socialism where everything needs to be supplied for the individual. There is an imbalance now caused by a variety of changes – Covid, high rent, Federal Unemployment benefits, worker permits – it’s called “__it happens”. It won’t be solved by new regulations on business or waving of government wands. The crap sandwich dalt to us by China is not going to be digested overnight.

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 6:59 pm
  • Tri-Village

    I commented about a worker strike on fourth of July week in a previous article about the housing crisis. Looks like that’s not needed. I hope no one gets seriously injured this year. If you do, you are f@$!ked. Not enough hospital staff. Better be good at swimming because the life guards are under staffed as well. There are not many real answers to this problem. I think a start would be to tax the hell out of air bnb income and actually enforce it

    Saturday, Apr 24 @ 9:04 pm
  • Mike P

    Hold on there Dan Hudson!!!
    You twisted my comment to fit your crap sandwich way of thinking.
    Fact is part of capitalism is built on supply and demand. Now businesses need workers and workers need to make more than some are willing to pay to survive and be able to NOT have to rely on government assistance. When American workers have to rely on government assistance because their pay is too low that would be more in line with what you call socialism.
    Also nowhere in my comment did I suggest any form of new government regulations or free housing.
    There are a lot of workers who commute to Virginia to earn enough money to live here. If the pay was better here then those workers could stay here and work. If the pay was better here it would attract workers from other areas that are willing to commute.
    And dear sir China has nothing to do with this issue.
    American workers trying to earn a living just as you did are not communist!!
    Enjoy your retirement as most American workers these days will not have that option.

    God Bless America!!!

    PEACE!!!

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 4:46 am
  • Mark

    Housing has been, and will continue to be an issue in resort areas that rely primarily on seasonal tourism for their primary income. In reality, very few people who live in small towns actually have the luxury of working in that same small town.
    The lack of pollution, noise or otherwise, crime, and an industrial skyline are some of the draws that bring millions to the OBX every year.
    The price is obviously manufacturing jobs, apartment complexes, and mass transit that benefit local workers but not necessarily the local businesses.
    I managed a large trades company on the beach prior to going into business for myself. I’ve literally been in thousands of homes in Dare and Currituck county. Hundreds of those homes were used for employee housing. Some were owned by employers, some were rented by employers.
    I can attest to the 4-6 bunk beds in a room. Average 4 bedroom house with 16-20 people using 2 bathrooms and 1 kitchen. Parking nightmares. Unkept properties.
    Let’s not forget the crime. Rapes,assaults,thefts. Mostly going unreported because students from most countries are afraid of being sent back so they keep their mouths shut.
    The sad part about it Is there are only a very few businesses that can afford to provide even the shabbiest housing as people have mentioned. And they do charge $125 a week minimum for a bed in a bunk room.
    The days of working and living in a resort area are only available to a select few anymore.
    Like so many quaint old towns across the country, the Outer Banks has progressed too much to turn back now.
    The way it was will never be again. It’s still a great place to visit, but living here has changed forever.

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 8:04 am
  • Sandflea

    Businesses have been charging resort area prices while paying rural America wages for years. All of a sudden, the workers have discovered capitalism and the business owners now seem to want socialism. I have a feeling the workers my get extremely burnt out before the summer ends and throw in the towel. That would mean next year there will be even fewer workers as they will not return . In addition, the more than demanding visitors will be extremely unhappy and voice their displeasure all over the internet. This area could implode on itself. The business owners comments I read here are mostly about how they are entitled to just keep making as much money as they possibly can and the housing problem is not their concern.
    If new housing were to be built, where would you build? Currituck workers will start migrating to Virginia and will make good wages without the hassle of driving and over demanding tourists. Mann’s Harbor would be the closest and least costly possible solution, but you would be building on a literal swamp.
    We are seeing summer type business and traffic and it’s only April folks. The infrastructure simply cannot support what is here already;and it’s only going to get worse.

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 9:04 am
  • Frank

    What percentage of our High School kids work the summers! Why not bring back the “work experience” apprentice programs and they can pay their parents for room and board. Melt a few snowflakes too!

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 12:23 pm
  • John T

    Well it’s time for the business owners to become landlords and purchase housing for their employees.Maybe then they will understand why so many long term properties have been taken out of service and converted to Airbnb’s,second homes,or primary residences.

    Surely you can get enough return to pay for the mortgage and maybe a little profit if you’re lucky.

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 1:34 pm
  • circle of profit margins

    Cutting back hours, menu options, and take out, due to lack of employee help = loss of revenue. So you pay your 6 employees more money so they stay with you and not job hop to someone paying more. They work their tails off but the business still cant keep up with the demand. The lack of help will ultimately hurt the business over all. No matter what you pay the limited staff you have. These establishments need the summer sales to survive the dead winter months.

    If I owned a restaurant and was dealing with low staff numbers, I would offer take out/pick up only. No inside dining. Don’t need wait staff, don’t need bussers, get by with one dishwasher. Take the 6 employees you have and just make food to go. Off set the lack of tips with higher wages.

    Then around 9 pm, open up the bar to seating and dining. Close up at midnight. You’d need less staff at those hours from limited bar seating and limited food orders, but still get some drink sales AND give people somewhere to go at night. This place turns into a ghost town after 9pm unless you want to go to places that you catch the clap at.

    Sunday, Apr 25 @ 2:32 pm
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