Jersey Shore worker shortage worsens as Labor Day approaches

An overturned lifeguard stand warns swimmers that the Park Place beach in Ocean City, New Jersey is unguarded because of a staffing shortage. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

An overturned lifeguard stand warns swimmers that the Park Place beach in Ocean City, New Jersey is unguarded because of a staffing shortage. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

As Labor Day approaches, staffing issues at Jersey Shore businesses are getting worse as students go back to school and the few foreign students brought in for the summer on temporary visas return home.

In Ocean City, some lifeguard stands are overturned and swimming is banned on some beaches that are not covered by lifeguards. In other places, service has slowed because of a lack of employees.

Scott Wahl, the business administrator of the borough of Avalon, said businesses have also cut hours or shut down on days they would normally remain open.

“It’s been a trying summer for the entire summer for every Jersey shore town trying to have employees in the restaurants, the bars, the retail shops, on the boardwalk,” Wahl said. He adds places are shutting down for one or two days a week to give their employees a break, which puts a strain on seasonal businesses that make their primary revenue during the summer.

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At the Ocean City Waterpark, which delayed opening until just before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, marketing director Eric Fluet said they have had to shut down the lazy river attraction because they just don’t have enough lifeguards to safely operate it.

“Everybody’s struggling … The key was to make sure that you are doing the best you can, and guests can see you hustling,” he said.

Fluet said the park has offered discounts on tickets to reflect the shutdown of the attraction, which he hopes will not be the case next summer.

While many businesses in Jersey Shore towns rely on foreign student workers on temporary J-1 visas, many were unable to come in 2021 because of pandemic travel restrictions. The New Jersey Tourism Industry Association lobbied the U.S. State Department to approve visas for up to 30,000 workers already vetted and cleared for the 2020 tourism season, but the request was denied, according to Ben Rose, a member of the association’s board.

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Michelle Gillian is executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, and her family runs the Wonderland amusement pier on the boardwalk. She says some high school and college students returned to the workforce over the summer, but didn’t work full weeks like foreign students usually do.

Gillian says that has resulted in businesses closing early for the season, giving up a week before Labor Day, which is traditionally the last major influx of tourists to the beach resorts. She adds even her family-run amusement pier has adjusted its schedule to open in the late afternoon because it doesn’t have the staff to open when it usually does.

“It really is challenging beyond belief. Most businesses are paying top-dollar,” she said, noting Wonderland and other businesses have increased wages to $15 an hour.

In Avalon, an effort to recruit more lifeguards by boosting pay by 20% has paid off, said Mayor Martin Pagliughi.

“The pay was too low,” Pagliughi said. “A lot of the guards couldn’t afford to stay in town unless they went into a group rental.”

In addition to raising the average starting salary, Pagliughi said Avalon offered virtual training before the start of the season and bonuses to lifeguards that stay through Labor Day. That resulted in a record number of lifeguard tryouts this year, he said.

Rose, who also serves as director of marketing and public relations for the Wildwoods, worries about having enough people to staff major events in the final weeks of the summer, such as the Irish Weekend and the annual car show.

Managers, family members, and anyone who can be recruited are being pressed into service to cover what Rose calls the “second season” that runs into October, where the boardwalk opens for the tourist trade through the fall.

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