The White Sands in Point Pleasant Beach features 127 rooms, two swimming pools, a spa and beach access, putting it perfectly situated for visitors desperate to travel after being holed up during the pandemic.
But the hotel is in dire straits. It has eight employees. It needs at least 12 more. And workers are nowhere to be found.
“I really can’t get anybody to work,” said Christina Ranuro, the general manager whose family has owned The White Sands for 30 years. “I’ve raised my starting (wage) from $12 to $13 to $14 to $15 to $16 an hour. And people just don’t want to come to work.”
The Shore’s tourism industry, scaled back last year due to the pandemic, is cranking back up — starting this Memorial Day weekend with the unofficial start of summer.
COVID restrictions have eased. People are vaccinated. And consumers after a year of wearing masks and keeping their distance appear ready to blow off steam.
It adds up to a potential blockbuster. But rather than relief, the tourism industry is panicking. The pandemic has upended the labor market, leaving thousands of jobs unfilled and forcing them to ask New Jerseyans — and everyone else — for something the state isn’t known for: patience and civility.
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“We have to realize that a lot of these businesses are definitely going to struggle a bit, some of them very much with the lack of labor to accommodate the demand,” said Dana Lancellotti, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, a trade group.
“So when you go to the restaurants and when you go to order a drink and when you’re enjoying the activities and the tourism attractions, please remember that you may have to wait a little longer, you may have to be a little more patient,” she said. “But these businesses are doing everything they can with what they have.”
Monmouth and Ocean counties are coming off of a head-scratching year. Visitors searching for a safe respite from the disease flocked to Shore, boosting beach badge revenue for local towns by double digits, an Asbury Park Press study found.
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But they apparently were confined to the beaches. Monmouth and Ocean counties’ tourism industry generated $5.8 billion in spending last summer, down 24.6% from the previous year, according to Tourism Economics, a research group.
Among the Shore businesses bracing for a rebound: Joe Leone’s Italian Specialties and Catering, which has stores in Point Pleasant Beach and Sea Girt and planned to open a new location in Manasquan in mid-June.
But its expansion plans are on hold, owner Joe Leone Introna said, because he can’t find 30 people he needs to staff it.
It is not for a lack of trying. Introna has placed help-wanted ads on the internet job site Indeed. He has increased wages, not only for new hires, but also for current workers. He assigned an employee to wear a lion costume to stand on the street corner, holding a sign.
But Introna is frustrated. His company has set up interviews and hired job candidates, only to watch them fail to show up. Meanwhile, businesses with deeper pockets such as Wawa, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ and QuickChek are offering signing bonuses.
It leaves Jersey Shore tourism businesses faced with a dilemma more commonly seen in the Silicon Valley technology industry: poaching.
“It’s put us in a very, very difficult situation where other than competing against each other for products and food, we’re competing against each other for employees,” Introna said. “Employees are leaving with no notice.”
If not for the labor crunch, this summer could be reason to celebrate.
New Jersey’s daily COVID-19 cases have fallen almost 95% from their peak in January. More than 4 million New Jerseyans have been fully vaccinated, putting the state about 80% of the way to its goal.
And Gov. Phil Murphy is easing restrictions. Patrons beginning May 28 no longer will be required to wear masks or social distance indoors or outdoors at tourism hotspots like bars and restaurants. And patrons the following week won’t face capacity restrictions.
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The Jersey Shore stands to capitalize. In one early indication, local real estate agents said visitors last winter and spring snapped up summer rentals, paying premiums.
Americans plan to take summer vacations at the same rate as they did before the pandemic, according to a report by Deloitte, a consulting firm, but they are staying domestic and one in four travelers are taking road trips instead of flying.
“Given the Jersey Shore’s proximity to so many big metros, and the fact that beaches are the most sought-after destination, it’s not surprising you are seeing high demand,” said Stephen Rogers managing director of Deloitte’s Consumer Industry Center.
One problem? The demand has been restarted like a light switch. And the labor market can’t adjust fast enough, experts said.
The tourism industry seems particularly susceptible, and it is taking aim at what it says is the biggest culprit: enhanced unemployment benefits.
New Jersey workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own are entitled to two-thirds of their pay up to $731. They also receive an extra $300 a week from the federal government through Sept. 4. Business owners say it gives workers incentive to stay home.
Adding to the mix: The H2B visa program that allows students to travel from overseas to work in the tourism industry was suspended last year. President Joe Biden has expanded the program, but it has taken time to ramp up.
Meanwhile, women in particular have dropped out of the labor force because they can’t find child care. And workers remain hesitant about returning to jobs out of fear that the pandemic isn’t over, said Richard Kasmin, chief economist for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
“Things went from being basically frozen to just as if it was shot out of a rocket … creating a change in economic activity, the likes of we’ve never seen before,” Kasmin said. “All of a sudden (businesses) went from not needing people to needing people on a dime. And labor markets don’t tend to really work that way.”
Not everyone is having trouble finding workers. The Chateau Inn and Suites in Spring Lake has 15 employees, which is all it needs, owner Scott Smith said.
The difference: The hotel was open year-round and kept its workers on the payroll, he said.
Operators without enough help face a summer of tough decisions.
Ocean County, for example, can’t find enough lifeguards to cover its two inland beaches — Ocean County Park in Lakewood and A. Paul King County Park in Stafford, said Commissioner Virginia E. Haines, chairwoman of county parks and recreation.
That means that only one county park will allow swimming at its beach this summer.
Elsewhere, Long Beach Island towns are having trouble hiring enough lifeguards as well, said Commissioner Gerry P. Little, who lives in Surf City and previously was a borough councilman there.
“I don’t want to get into what could happen, but if you don’t have enough lifeguards …” said John Crisafulli, founder and past president of the Central Ocean Business Association, who observed this is a systemic issue for beach towns up and down the Jersey Shore.
The imbalance between visitors and manpower left officials asking for peace.
“We have to keep and respect these beaches and keep these beaches clean,” Monmouth County Commissioner Director Thomas A. Arnone said. “And we have to remind the people from the outside that this is a vital part (of the county). We offer this to everybody to come and enjoy.”
In Point Pleasant Beach, the White Sands Hotel has all hands on deck. Or at least as many hands as it can find.
Ranuro’s 70-something father, Frank Chiaia, was doing laundry late at night, and help remains elusive; 12 exchange students expected from Ecuador remain stuck in their home country, unable to travel.
The staff is tired. And summer hasn’t yet started.
“There’s a lot of people coming, and not a lot of people working,” Ranuro said.
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at [email protected]