This summer, a midnight slice of Grotto Pizzaat the beach may not be a sure thing.That’s because Grotto, like many of coastal Delaware’s tourism-based businesses, will likely have to take drastic measures as they approach another tourist season amid an ongoing pandemic.The problem they’re facing isn’t government mandates or alarming COVID-19 spikes like those seen in 2020. It isn’t an overabundance of empty hotel rooms or vacation houses. It’s a severe shortage of eligible employees in the state’s biggest beach towns.“I’ve been doing this for 20 years at the beach and this is hands-down the worst staffing crisis we’ve ever had,” said Grotto Pizza Vice President Jeff Gosnear. “And it’s not just us. … It’s going to be a tough year for everybody.”
[caption id="attachment_211733" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Allie Kepner and Molly Redgate prepare for a busy season at Grotto Pizza amid the shortage of J-1 workers. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GROTTO PIZZA[/caption]
At Funland’s opening weekend, which coincided with Mother’s Day, the rides were spinning and the games were running. But the biggest difference this year—aside from the COVID-19 precautions in place—may be the lack of employees, particularly those traveling abroad for the work and cultural experiences offered by the J-1 Visa cultural exchange program.Personnel Manager Chris Darr said he was hoping to get roughly half of the 30-35 J-1 workers that would normally spend their summers at Funland. But the season may look like a repeat of 2020, when there were no J-1 workers at all.“We’ll definitely have visitors, but are we going to be able to accommodate all of that demand?” asked the fourth-generation businessman. “We want to create a great experience, but there’s only so many wiffle balls that can be picked up at once.”Grotto is planning to not only limit hours and close restaurants in less high-demand areas on slower days as needed, but is also planning to run employee shuttles across the state to fill staffing gaps.Just a few weeks ahead of Memorial Day weekend, Kohr Bros. Regional Manager Sean Martin said he’s at about 25-35% of the staffing levels needed to run the three ice cream shops he oversees in Rehoboth Beach.
[caption id="attachment_211495" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] People walk the boardwalk late April, with some wearing masks as mandated under Rehoboth Beach guidelines. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING[/caption]
The lack of J-1 student workers is exacerbating shortages, but isn’t the only problem, Martin said. It’s a combination of issues, including a lack of affordable housing in the resort areas.“We have the chance to somewhat have a normal year, and now we don’t have the help,” Martin said. But Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Carol Everhart said that when she polled dozens of businesses at a recent job fair, only a few blamed staff shortages on the lack of J-1 exchange visitors. The overwhelming response? That people are making too much money to stay home and collect unemployment.“I don’t know how to combat it other than what we’re doing,” she said, noting that Rehoboth and Dewey officials have agreed to allow businesses to set up their own mini job fairs on the two Fridays left before the unofficial start of summer.In addition to shifting hours and employees, Grotto is also offering gift cards for employee referrals. Business people like Darr, Gosnear and Martin are just hoping customers will be patient and understand that a shortage of workers will inevitably mean longer wait times at the counter.Everhart said she’s heard of other businesses offering $1,000 bonuses or $500 sign-on offers, even an additional $100 per day to just show up. Still, businesses aren’t getting the help they need and instead face closing on certain days or shortening hours, even though the vacation rental markets looks “extremely strong” already this spring.“It’s an employee drought,” Everhart said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” By Maddy Lauria