More than 1,800 foreign students came to the Delaware beaches to work under the J-1 visa program in 2019. Last year, there were 437, and local business owners noticed. The Alliance for International Exchange (AIE) reported that there were an insufficient number of J-1 workers nationwide. Fewer than 40,000 students came to the United States in 2021, down from more than 108,000 in 2019.
[caption id="attachment_223441" align="alignright" width="576"] The Cultured Pearl restaurant has long hosted international workers, like these young women from Thailand, but it had to buy its own housing to ensure that help this year. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CULTURED PEARL[/caption]
Some of that could be attributable to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and the war in Ukraine is something of a factor this year, but in Delaware, there’s an additional issue. According to Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Carol Everhart, even if there were an unlimited number of students willing to come and work at the beach, there really isn’t anywhere for them to live. That is an issue with very few quick fixes.“We do not have the J-1 numbers we need,” she said. “A big problem is housing.”COVID changed the face of the Delaware beaches in ways that may not have been predicted. Many seasonal residents who worked remotely from the beach decided to keep things that way. On top of that, remote workers with the wherewithal have taken up a number of the rentals. The crush exacerbated a creeping resort-area problem: the people who work lower-wage jobs can’t afford to live or rent near the beach.Everhart said as the number of visitors has gone up, the availability of workforce-priced housing has plummeted. A novel approachSusan Wood, who owns the Cultured Pearl in Rehoboth Beach, said she and her year-round staff had to pick up the slack because there were so few seasonal workers. For the last 30 years, she relied on hiring J-1 workers looking for a second job.To sponsor a worker, an employer has to guarantee they’ll have a place to stay. Some of the bigger businesses in the region take up the sponsorship responsibilities and smaller businesses hire the students. Once they arrive, J-1 students tend to pick up a second job, often at small area businesses.With fewer than a third of J-1 students visiting last year, demand outstripped worker supply, so this year Wood invested in two houses. She became a sponsor to ensure that she got workers.“Without housing, you’re not going to get students to come,” she said. “We took drastic measures to ensure we had staff.”Filling server positions is a little bit easier because of the potential income, she said, but bussers and other low-skill positions have been a lot harder to fill.Wood has about 60 year-round employees but needs 95 to get through the summer. About 15 of those tended to come from J-1 students. This year she will sponsor 18 students, but that’s where the trouble in Europe becomes a factor. Of the 18 students she has agreed to sponsor, only eight have received their visas. While she is optimistic, filling the 15 positions locally is already a concern. It could be a real problem if that number increases to 25.A long summer aheadAt a recent hiring event with more than 30 employers looking to fill about 1,000 positions, 47 applicants showed up, according to Everhart. While she held out hope that there could be a solution to the housing problem in the future, she recognizes that it won’t be solved before Memorial Day.“We’ve got more than 20 million people in a three-hour drive,” she said. “We’re going to have the [same number of visitors] that we had last year and the same issue.”According to the AIE report, 82% of responding businesses reported longer wait times and a decrease in customer service. The 10 reporting Delaware businesses reported a combined revenue loss of $645,000.Wood suggested that workers who learned to do without or made cutbacks during COVID aren’t returning to seasonal work. Whether because of gas prices or rent prices, the return on wages isn’t a sufficient enticement to drive to the beach for many area workers.While Wood appears to have solved half of her staffing problem in the long term, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon for the bulk of the region’s seasonal businesses.