Good Help Hard to Find, Especially Now, LBI Businesses Say

Various Obstacles to Securing Staffs
By JON COEN | Jun 27, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

The economy has finally rebounded. The horrific spring weather is finally over. Local businesses are ready to thrive.

Or they would be, if they could get the right staff.

Blamed on several factors, Long Beach Island area businesses, many depending on a three-month economy (some say it’s now scaled back to two months) are having a very difficult time finding labor.

From construction sites to kitchens, beach patrols to retail shops, owners and managers are having a hard time filling crews and staffs this summer. The reasons are varied, from a crackdown on legal seasonal immigrant workers, a changing demographic on LBI, and what many business owners are finding is a lack of commitment to work among young people.

For one thing, the economy is doing well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate has been on a steady decline since the peak of the recession in October 2009, when the Gross Domestic Product had taken a hit of over 5 percent. It has dropped from 10 percent to 3.8 percent by the start of this summer.

Basic economics would dictate that there are more jobs now. Yet instead of workers competing for average-paying jobs, employers are now competing for workers.

Another major factor was the lowering of seasonal work visas for immigrants as of 2017. Prior to the Trump Administration, the U.S. would allow some 66,000 non-agricultural workers to work seasonally on what’s called an H-2B Visa, where business required more labor than the local workforce could supply. Traditionally, workers who returned season after season weren’t included in the 66,000 cap.

These are legal, temporary immigrant workers who are taxed. They return to their home country at the end of the season. Employers have to apply for the workers, usually in industries like seafood, landscaping and yes, tourism.

The current administration decided to keep the cap at 66,000, which has left many U.S. businesses scrambling, particularly ones that are busiest in the summer. In May, the Department of Homeland Security raised the cap, allowing another 15,000 workers. But for some businesses it may be too late.

Mark Cohen opened the Chicken or the Egg in 1991 with his brother in Beach Haven. He spent many summers in the kitchen before he was able to build up a dependable staff, allowing him to be on the restaurant floor. It’s a high volume restaurant and during the heat of the summer, “The Chegg” is open 24 hours a day. There’s little down time.

This summer, Cohen finds himself back behind the line, simply because the H-2B visa cap doesn’t allow for most of his kitchen staff to return. There was a question of whether or not the Chegg would even be able to staff the restaurant for 24 hours, seven days a week. And this is after playing by the rules for decades.

“The program has been in effect since the late ‘80s, and we’ve utilized it for many years,” Cohen said. “Essentially, these are individuals who have a proven track record, pay taxes, and are available when we need them most, unlike their American counterparts. They do jobs that we have had a very poor success rate filling locally.

“These are good, hard-working people who show up for work every day and bust their butts,” said Cohen.

“And it’s not about saving money; they’re paid very well. No matter what pay scale we use, we have been unable to fill these spots. It’s always difficult filling kitchen spots. The best candidates have year-round jobs.”

He says many of those who do apply for the kitchen come with significant baggage, listing drugs and alcohol problems or major schedule restrictions.

“We try year after year to hire locally and have very little success.”

Rich Vaughan, owner of Bistro 14 in Beach Haven, faces similar staffing problems. Bistro would only need a relatively low three or four seasonal kitchen workers a season, which isn’t cost effective for the HB-2 program.

“Last year I was considering it for this year. But it’s a complicated process and you have to hire a company and apply for a number of employees. I’ve had good luck in the past hiring locally but now there are some real challenges,” Vaughan admitted.

Long Beach Island used to have an army of workers each summer: kids on summer break, those who came down for the summer with their families, and others who simply took a second job for three months. It was lucrative, and some even recall it being fun.

That labor is scarce in 2018.

“We’ve had kids come over from the mainland whose parents are driving them over. And I get it: they leave Ocean Acres at 11:30 p.m. to pick up their kids in Beach Haven. By the time they get home, it’s 1 a.m. and they have to work the next day.

“But the kid got a job to get experience, learn a work ethic, and make some money. And when they don’t honor that commitment, what kind of message are they sending to their children? In my head, I think, ‘Why didn’t you think of that before the kid took the job?’ But that’s not really any of my business.”

What is Vaughn’s business is running a kitchen that has to go from zero to sixty without much time to train staff, and a very different LBI than when he was young.

“There simply used to be more young people who lived here year-round, or at least all summer. When we were in our teens and 20s, there used to be houses for kids who lived here in the summer. That whole culture is gone,” he remarked. “We had fun but we had to work to pay rent, save for school and buy beer. That was our motivation. A lot of kids on the Island today are not particularly motivated to work.”

It’s something that business owners across the board can see. Dave Voris, owner of Giglio Awnings, says his labor situation isn’t dire because he employs year-round workers. Many are older than their 20s. His staff is all running overtime right now; more so because of the spring weather putting them behind, rather than lacking good help.

“But the reality is that these days, we have to go out and find people. I met two college guys at Retro Fitness and offered them jobs. And they’re doing fine. Landscaping was never a glamorous job compared to maybe working in a surf shop. But we don’t get anyone ever coming in anymore to fill out an application. We have to reach out to get employees,” said Voris.

On an Island that has become more affluent, young people can’t rent homes with their friends. And many simply don’t have to work because of their parents’ financial situations. The average home sale, according to Sand Dollar Real Estate, for the first quarter of 2018 was over $1.1 million. Median home values in Beach Haven rose 2.5 percent the last year.

Michael Illames, who has owned Drill Sergeant Cleaning for 15 years and is now located in Ship Bottom, feels lucky that he can keep his people working year round. He agreed, “Finding new people is a challenge. It’s the beach – and people want to enjoy the summer. They don’t want to work full time. And a lot of the parents that are here for the summer can afford for their kids to not work.”

Cohen has written an entire dissertation on the subject that he has sent to his elected officials.

“The shacks and bungalows are gone and have been replaced with big, new homes that folks are not renting to kids, even if they could afford them.”

Vaughan stated frankly that if someone had told him 10 years ago that dishwashers would be getting paid $10 an hour, he’d have laughed in their face.

“But now if you were to offer someone minimum wage of $7.25, people will walk right out. But the dishes have to get done. And it hurts your bottom line,” he explained.

Every owner is hesitant to cast a wide net on the younger generation, but the consensus seemed that even the ones who are available don’t commit to working the way young people have on LBI in the past. And they don’t want to work through August.

Vaughan recalled his college days of working the day after his last final, cooking in a restaurant all summer, going out and saying goodbye to everyone in September and driving straight to the University of Delaware for the start of the fall semester.

“Now kids have to take two or three weeks off to get their head straight. And then they need two weeks off in July to go to Punta Cana. Then they need off because their dad wants to take them to Paris. And then they have to go to the Firefly Festival. I can sit here and rail about ‘these kids today.’ But it’s a different reality, and a different set of beliefs.

“The idea that everybody works just isn’t a thing anymore.”

One restaurant owner told a story of a recently hired 18-year-old dishwasher who left the kitchen during the dinner rush to sit with his family who had come in to eat, and helped himself to two Long Island Iced Teas while the dishes piled up. By the time the dinner rush was over, he was unemployed.

And how do the kids feel?

There are still some hustlers, like Danny O’Hara of Ship Bottom. A Southern Regional grad, he began working at 14 and through his late teens, did mornings at Jayson’s Pancake House in Ship Bottom and evenings at Woody’s Drive-In across the street. He recently graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University, consistently making the Dean’s List, and is working six to seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the kitchen at Jayson’s. He also manages to do freelance video editing and play several gigs a month with up and coming local indie rockers, The Double Negative, and a new band.

“A lot of kids just come back from college and just want to hang out for the summer. A lot of parents just let their kids live at home and take their time figuring out what they want to do,” explained O’Hara. “But among my friends, there are a few hustlers. I just had one friend see how much I was working and went out and got a job.

“But there’s been a change in work ethic, I think.”

O’Hara will work the summer and then is off to Philly, where he’s got a job working on a feature film in the fall.

Cohen hammers home the point that he loves the kids who return from year to year, and that they are great workers. And yet, “there seems to be an overall trend of laziness and ‘entitlement,’ for lack of a better word. It sounds trite, but it’s true: kids just don’t want to work hard.

“Talk to any restaurant owner. It’s been a rough summer without our core guys.”

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