More summer worker woes predicted on OBX

By on May 23, 2023


Lack of housing cited as key reason for the shortage

As the calendar closes in on the summer season, local business owners are expressing concern that the chronic staffing shortages that have plagued the Outer Banks for the past few visitor seasons will continue to affect customer service, hours of operation and revenues.

“I think most businesses will be short staffed this season,” John Harris, President of Kitty Hawk Kites, told the Voice. Kitty Hawk Kites with retail locations throughout the Outer Banks, is one of the largest private employers in the area.

Ongoing staffing shortages are also predicted for the local restaurant industry, a trend that directly impacts hours of operation, according to Wes Stepp, President of the Outer Banks Restaurant Association and owner of NC Coast Grill & Bar and Red Sky Cafe in Duck.

“There are very few restaurants that actually stay open seven days a week anymore,” he noted.

Stepp points out that in a seasonal economy in which many businesses rely on a three-month window to generate more than half their annual income, being closed for one or two days a week will be felt on the bottom line.

“Anytime your doors are closed, you’re really losing revenues. But you’ve only got so many people, so you can only do so much,” he said. And for Stepp, it’s not just the loss in revenue that is concerning. “It does affect the visitors’ experience. [Even] when the restaurants are all open, there’s not enough restaurants for as many people that come down here to stay,” he added.

Harris echoes Stepp’s concerns about revenue and customer service. “It does affect service and impact sales…Our people are trying really hard, but our customer service right now—it’s not to the level that we want it to be. We’ve got really good people and they’re trying really hard. But they’re spread so thin,” he said.

Nonetheless, Harris does expect some improvement over last year. He said there has been an uptick in the number of applications his company has been getting, although he adds a cautionary note.

“We have more American students applying this year than last year. But still not enough. And the same with international students, more are applying,” he said. “The programs are getting going again, but still not enough.”

The international students are the J1 students, foreign exchange students that apply through the U.S. State Department in a cultural exchange program that is significantly different than a work visa issued through the U.S. Department of Labor. By way of example, J1 students are full-time students who are allowed to work to offset the cost of applying for the visa and living in the United States during their visit. However they are required to file regular reports on what they are experiencing while in the country, according to Jamie Banjak, of the Outer Banks International Student Outreach Program (ISOP).

“Participants have to take part in cultural exchange activities and report on that every single month,” she said.

Banjak agrees with Harris that there will be more J1 workers this year than last year, but she said those numbers, although uncertain at this time, will be significantly less than in the pre- COVID years.

“I don’t think we’re going to be anywhere near where we were [with] pre-pandemic participants on the Outer Banks,” she said. “In 2019, we had almost two thousand participants.”

In analyzing why the number of JI students has shrunk so significantly in recent years, Banjak explains that attracting students to an area for employment is very competitive and there are other locations that can offer services that do not exist on the Outer Banks.

“If I’m a participant in Bulgaria, and I decide I’m going to shell out a few grand and come on this program for the summer…am I going to go to Buxton, where there’s no public transportation? Housing is really expensive. There’s no movie theater…Or am I going to go to Ocean City where there’s…airports and nightlife? These participants have a lot of options,” she said.

Although Banjak cites a number of factors that go into deciding where to work for the summer, a critical housing shortage is cited consistently by her and others as the most significant reason for ongoing staffing problems.

“There are a lot of places that participants can choose to go for their summer,” Banjak said. “And they have a lot more available housing.”

For Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce President Karen Brown, housing is the most critical community need.

“Housing, that’s a problem across the board, whether it’s summer, winter, fall or spring. It’s not getting any better,” she asserted. “If we don’t fix that, we don’t fix the workforce problem.”

Stepp also sees housing as the central factor in the ongoing effort to adequately staff businesses.

“There’s nowhere for people to live, so it’s really hard to keep that good steady workforce going, or that summer workforce where they can come down and find some place affordable to live and work through the season. There’s nowhere down here like that anymore,” he said.

Even Harris, who offers employee housing at Kitty Hawk Kites, has been feeling the effects of the housing shortage.

“We’ve added more housing. But we still we still don’t have enough for everyone,” he said. “We encourage everyone to look on their own and try and find housing.”

Ultimately, Banjak says, it’s about how the Outer Banks community thinks about balancing a thriving tourism economy with the needs of the businesses and workers that serve those visitors.

“We do everything we can to make things so easy for our tourists to come here and we do [very little] to build the infrastructure for our workforce,” she said.


  • TD

    Is John Harris still quietly trying to hire at 8.75 hr like he was a couple years ago? If you won’t pay decent wages, you won’t be able to compete for employees.

    Tuesday, May 23 @ 8:22 pm
  • Steven

    There’s more than enough housing, look around, place is severely overbuilt with them, and so close together that each one is a fire hazard to the next.

    Tuesday, May 23 @ 9:26 pm
  • Local Hooty

    Can we get an article on our already insane traffic issues?
    You can’t go anywhere on the beach!

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 5:56 am
  • PJ

    We probably need to pay somebody couple hundred thousand to do some more studies on a issue that in reality is long past being able be solved. It all comes back to the out the of control development thats been allowed to happen and has destroyed the last bit of OBX quality of life. High rise condos will be the next big thing to come, following the dreaded “mini hotels” and the “cluster homes (drive through KDH). There arent many more places left to build other than up anymore! It is my opinion larger scale employer provided low income worker housing goes down a slippery road. If you do not perform to the owner(s) expectations, if you complain about working conditions , or all the hours you have to work, you can and will be let go, and then you will be homeless so shut up and work. Thats a lot of power to have over your employees. Hopefully that kind of thing isnt happening but it is the reality of employer provided housing. On the bright side….we have a new WAWA!

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 7:36 am
  • Look@See

    This guy 🙄 if he’s so concerned about public transport maybe he can buy a van for himself and pay a decent wage? Sounds like he’s not offering competitive wages because I know PLENTY of people who are looking for work right now. This town already has to staff 47 gas stations and a bunch of corporate run big businesses.. this guy willing to turn this place into Norfolk just to make a couple extra bucks? He will be one of the folks complaining about how much everything changed and how good it used to be while ignoring his own culpability.

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 10:52 am
  • Dan

    Plenty of housing – just not the affordable or available kind. And for those who think OBX is overbuilt just don’t add anymore public sewage systems (e.g. KDH, NH Village). If septic is the only game in town it is virtually impossible to overdevelop. Once you can hook up to a sewage system the sky is the limit and tax dollars control the decisions.

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 12:32 pm
  • HousingNo

    Affordable housing is not going to happen. Greed has caused home owners to evict their long term renters in favor of VRBO, hence creating a greater deficient in housing. Are these home owners/VRBO renters paying their Occupancy Tax? People can’t afford to buy with the rising interest rates and overinflated housing prices. I know that several people are renting rooms in their homes. It helps some, but not an ideal situation or sustainable. People can’t afford to commute because of the ridiculous price of gas. I don’t see lower gas prices in the foreseeable future. The economy is in the shitter. Yay. Thanks Uncle Joe. #LGB

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 12:54 pm
  • Chris

    I have to start laughing at each and every one of you now. We’ve been fighting this problem For several Years now. You think you have a solution or you think the higher UPS have a Solution Not gonna Happen. There will never be affordable living. The roads are outdated. There’s not enough doctors for the people that Live here. There’s not enough dentists for The people that live here The hospital is outdated. Bumper to bumper traffic every day now and it’s not even Tourist season. If. You Go out to dinner. You will wait 2 hours in line. This topic Of discussion is dead. It’s over folks. You can cry about everything you want To now.. The beach is done. You can come back on here and leave all kinds of comments Against me. But the funny thing About it is I’m telling you the truth. So keep talking till you’re blue in the face. Because nothing will ever happen. No solutions. Solutions take away money From the greedy asses that run this beach. And for the other half of you That think you’re s*** don’t stink. And say all that All the help needs to be shipped in or live in East Lake or currituck, wouldn’t it be funny if those people started finding jobs away from this beach going the other direction. Only to now let this large scale litter box implode on its self. Now go ahead and throw out some nasty comments at me for telling you the truth.

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 2:52 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 3:55 pm
  • KDH back seat reviewer

    Adapt and Overcome. That is what owners/operators should be doing. Not this complaining, woe is us/them/you. Stop thinking that something is going to change(affordable housing) when it is not(employees). Stop blaming the issue. Find a work around. Solve the problem. Be creative. Think outside the box. The answer is there, it always is.

    The mindset should be how can I make this work for my business now and in the future. Forward thinking, not backwards complaining talk.

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 3:27 pm
  • Thomas

    “Bumper to bumper traffic every day now and it’s not even Tourist season.” Thanks to Chris for posting this comment. Did the Dare County officials purposely decide to wait until just before the tourist rush to start work on the roads? Going from Kitty Hawk down the beach to Nags Head on 158 has become a single lane nightmare. If they are not paving they are repairing. This couldn’t have been done in February or March??? Great planning Dare County! You are right on the ball!

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 4:52 pm
  • Currituck lady

    There is no adapting , the boat has sailed. The OBX is not what it was. It is now mega mansions where “beach cottages” just to be. The mom and p restaurants can not staff and now going out to eat is a hassle. Many are closed at least one day a week.Traffic on both the bypass and beach road is bumper to bumper. The beaches are not longer a place of solitudes. Mega mansions obstruct the ocean view.

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 5:05 pm

    “Harris echoes Stepp’s concerns about revenue and customer service.” Revenue is the primary concern of the business community. For decades businesses on the Outer Banks have been able generate high revenues by getting cheap labor supported by cheap run-down housing while charging resort prices.

    There is not a “lack of housing” or a “housing shortage” on the Outer Banks. We have become an expensive resort community. Short term rental housing has made all of our housing expensive. We have lots of housing. We are packed cheek by jowl with 12 bedroom houses, with more being build every day. There is a lack of inexpensive housing that is affordable for low income and even moderate income people.

    Unfortunately, due to our geographical isolation, we cannot build our way out of this dilemma by building more local housing. Given the high demand for new housing on the Outer Banks most of any new market rate housing will be bought by non-locals. For every local buyer there are 10 or 100 buyers from VA, MD, PA, etc. Likewise with any new government subsidized rental housing. For every local rental applicant there will be 10 or 100 non-local applicants.

    This dilemma can only be addressed by the free market. Higher wages for workers and efforts to facilitate commuting will encourage commuting from greater distances. Employer supplied housing will increase the supply of housing available to their workers. Higher prices resulting from higher wages and employer supplied housing will moderate demand from vacationers. Lower demand from vacationers should moderate housing prices. A higher supply of workers and a lower demand for services should improve customer service.

    Unfortunately for Harris and Stepp, revenue is never going to go back to the cheap labor high revenue business model.

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 5:44 pm
  • outis

    Starting with the first comment, TD’s. Yes, better pay would certainly help, but I don’t think it is ever going to get high enough for most workers in Dare County to be able to afford to buy a house, or even rent a place. The price of housing has gone through the roof, as the saying goes. And the availability of rental houses has been greatly reduced by all the owners switching to Air B&B, which should be banned in Dare County, if you want to partly solve the housing problem.
    And Local Hooty, I couldn’t agree with you more. The traffic situation in Dare County, especially anything north of Oregon Inlet, is not only insane, but down right dangerous. In the last three days I have driven from Nags Head to Martin’s Point, twice, on the so called By-Pass, and today through Nags Head, on the By-Pass. On all three occasions I saw an auto accident on the By-Pass. A really bad one yesterday, in Kitty Hawk, that involved a large RV and at least 3 to 4 vehicles. And all these traffic accidents are causing your auto insurance to be higher than it would be in other places.
    The Outer Banks is busting at the seams, and it shows everywhere. And another part of the problem is misinformation posted in various places on the internet. The real estate business and the builders are all trying to paint a very rosy picture on investing in their product, or renting a place in the OBX. Along with other misinformation – recently, while looking for a statistic about another subject on the OBX, I came across a statement from saying that the average salary on the Outer Banks was $150,586.00. WOW! Who is paying that kind of money? Certainly not the employers of the majority of the workers in Dare County. Maybe if that average includes all the realtors, developers and builders, and business owners you would get that.
    They are the ones making all the money, not the average worker. And even then I doubt you could get that average. So an exaggeration, on a website is likely drawing more people to move here, thinking they are going to make that kind of money. They would need to make that much just to be able to afford to live here.

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 6:27 pm
  • Steven

    ^ Chris is on point..
    I wouldn’t expect blowback from that post because it seems most folks share your thoughts.

    KDH, thinking outside the box is easy to say, share an idea please.
    How about a campaign by the tourism bureau to reduce the amount of tourists and vacationers, then bring back fishermen and beach goers, this place was prosperous and pleasant with that demographic..

    Wednesday, May 24 @ 9:03 pm
  • Hal McCray

    Affordable Housing is certainly an issue, but employers can do their part by offering a more competitive (higher) salary to offset travel expenses to those who live outside Dare, but travel to work everyday. Perhaps gas vouchers or take home vans that can pick up workers?

    Thursday, May 25 @ 9:14 am
  • Charles

    While Chris pretty much nails it, especially on HI, I love Mark’s comment regarding Lincoln.

    I always went with, “Other than that Mrs. Kennedy, how did you enjoy Dallas?”

    Thursday, May 25 @ 9:29 am
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Very similar sentiments, Charles.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 1:05 pm
  • Kit

    Steven… Do you really suppose that the Tourist Bureau would ever entertain a campaign to reduce the number of tourists? You must be smoking something! Fishermen and beach goers ARE the tourists; they are the ones crowding the place now!

    Thursday, May 25 @ 11:01 am
  • lil Johnny

    If all you transplants would stop complaining and move out there would be plenty of room and no need for the extra labor. It will never be 1962 again with 165 permanent residents. If you aren’t one of those original decedents you have no right to complain and need to move out and become an occasional visitor. SMDH

    Thursday, May 25 @ 1:06 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    That just sounds like one heck of an idea, Johnny.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 6:13 pm
  • resident

    I am continuously shocked by the ignorance or stupidity of the people we have in charge. commissioners , town planners etc. We allowed cluster homes without anyone checking or knowing that it could be from more than one home to 60 or 100s . That is scary. when the community in Wanchese voice opposition, the commissioners were rude and dismissive and later apologized and now everything is just peachy, however the damage is done. We would not let homeowners on the beach during covid therefore a lawsuit. did no one check the legalities? The commissioners and the tourist bureau cater to the realty and restaurant businesses and completely ignore the needs of the communities and locals. The major concern is where the international students and workers will live to serve the restaurants and real estate companies. Well guess what the locals cant find a place to live and are moving away because the housing situation is non existent. because Air B&Bs have taken over the Outer Banks. The complaints that these businesses will lose a tiny bit of money this year if they have to close one day infuriates me after the record profits, they have made during covid etc. After watching the ignorance, greed, lack of planning I am losing hope.One study after another, no transparency. What does the town planner do? Do they have a plan for 5 to ten years from now? Can that information be shared with the public? Does the plan include sewage, environmental issues, services for the existing residents, growth control anything? Really poor planning on the roadwork on the bypass. Did no one think that maybe this should have been completed before Memorial Day? There have been accidents because of this roadwork and what if there was a fatality? Then everyone could just play stupid and have no culpability? But have some rich people in the historic district complain about a pizza place (a great one) and watch these commissioners jump to serve them. They are selling the residents out .I imagine I will have to plant myself at every commissioner meeting to make sure that they are serving the people that elected them and not just the tourists and the special business owners. And while I’m at it, pointing out real issues is not complaining, it is being aware of reality and caring .

    Thursday, May 25 @ 1:55 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Just one note for the record, Resident. In the case of the Pizza place, the Town of Nags Head backed them against the residents that complained.

    Thursday, May 25 @ 6:15 pm
  • Steven

    Kit, apparently you were not here when it was fishermen and beach goers. They were priced and regulated out of here many years ago.
    Now it’s just vacationers and tourists..


    Thursday, May 25 @ 4:02 pm