She dusted herself off, collected the payment and climbed into her green truck to race to her other beach stand before her customers grew restless and left.
By the time she was back in bed at 9:30 a.m., she had serviced 16 umbrella rentals across 68 blocks in Ocean City, Md. The bottoms of her feet were numb.
“I’m exhausted,” she said, still in bed at noon that day and drinking a cup of coffee. “If you asked anyone that knows me or works for me, they would say this woman is a hard worker and we don’t know how she does it.”
In her 40 years at the helm of Patti’s Beach Service, Murrell, 66, built a business that requires around 20 people to operate. By early June this year, she could find only five employees willing to work part time — which means that every day, Murrell, knee replacement and all, had to run at least 10 vacant beach stands herself.
After the pandemic kept Americans largely at home last summer, business owners in beach towns across the country should be celebrating as people pile into cars, trains and planes in search of picnics on the sand and ice cream cones that drip under the sun. The rush to the beach just in time for July Fourth, however, has felt less like a breeze and more like a scorcher for employers trying to keep up with demand.
The J-1 Visa program typically sends more than 100,000 international students to work in the United States each summer, but the pandemic created backlogs that may keep 90 percent of participants away, according to Casey Slamin, senior vice president of programs at InterExchange, a private-sector sponsor that works with the State Department to implement the visa program. And many seasonal workers decided against returning to in-person work because of concerns over child care and the coronavirus or, in some cases, a preference for staying home on unemployment benefits.
As a result, businesses up and down the East Coast have shortened their hours of operation and limited their offerings just as peak season collides with a pent-up desire to hit the beach.
The Brookings Institution analyzed employment data for 17 metro areas that include major beach communities along the East Coast and found that 16 of them — excluding Ocean City, N.J. — were still well short of their pre-pandemic number of employees in the leisure and hospitality sectors. As of April, the Virginia Beach region was down 14.7 percent, Charleston, S.C., was down 15.2 percent and the Miami Beach region was 24 percent below its average leisure and hospitality employment in April 2018 and 2019.
“It is very clear that the beach economy is coming back, but there are wrinkles in it, especially in its labor market supply side,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. He stressed that the data is from April, which could mean that employment has increasingly recovered now that summer has begun.
A hotel operator who oversees more than a dozen properties along the East Coast allowed night-shift workers to bring in their pets to draw employees back to work. In Virginia Beach, an inn owner filled housekeeping vacancies with his children and their high school friends. In the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a restaurant is so understaffed that neither the owner nor general manager were able to come to the phone. They were both busy working in the kitchen.
In early June, a five-mile walk in Ocean City, Md., revealed the need for seasonal workers. Right where the expressway ends and boardwalk begins is a public tennis center where a 20-year-old employee said he is the only returning tennis instructor from the past few years. A few steps away, Bad Monkey raised wages for line cooks from $15 to $20 an hour and bumped up the price of crab cakes from $16 to $19. Two miles south, Jolly Roger Amusement Parks shortened its water park, GoCart, mini golf and amusement park hours to spread out its workforce as much as possible, while at Ocean City’s southern tip, Sportland Arcade closed on a Tuesday morning because its skeleton staff was too tired from long weekend shifts.
“It’s the perfect storm of events and the result is that businesses are not open seven days a week or all shifts,” said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “People need to pack their patience when they come and show people working a little bit of extra love.”
The J-1 Visa Program, which is run by the State Department, traditionally recruits, interviews and places applicants in jobs across the country beginning in January to allow students to travel to the United States by June and stay through August. This year, a presidential proclamation suspended the program until March 31 over concerns about the coronavirus. The delay created a lag in processing the visas as embassies around the world — still struggling with capacity limitations and remote staffing — try to process the applications in time for the summer.
Slamin projected that visa processing delays will prevent 90 percent of program participants from traveling to the United States this summer.
“The economy is raring to go but unfortunately, these students are stuck in limbo,” he said, adding that more students could end up in the United States if the processing accelerates soon.
John Fager, who owns Bad Monkey and three other restaurants in Ocean City, said he normally employees about 100 J-1 students per summer. In early June, he had about 20.
One of them was Marija Nikolic, a 22-year-old who had all but given up on her dream of a third summer in Ocean City, where she likes to drink on the beach and shop at the outlets.
That is, until she got a call about a month ago scheduling an interview with the Serbian Embassy. Within three days, she had her visa and plane ticket.
Nikolic, a tourism and hospitality masters student at an academy in south Serbia, touched down in the United States on June 11. Nikolic has spent her past and recent summer days as a line chef at Fager’s Island and slicing sandwiches at Bad Monkey, and her late nights sweaty and dancing at bars. When she arrived three weeks ago, she said, there were no Serbians around. No one else got a visa in time for the start of the summer.
“There are usually a lot of people from the Balkans here, so when I don’t have anything to do, I can just call them and we go around,” she said. “Sometimes you miss people from your country so you can talk in your language.”
Without most of his international student hires or many of his former seasonal employees, who opted for one reason or another to stay on unemployment, Fager had to raise wages to attract more staff. He also hiked menu prices to soften the financial burden on his business — charging customers $18 for a $15 hamburger and $42 for a $40 steak.
“It’s just not sustainable,” he said.
Still, there is a prevailing consensus in Ocean City and elsewhere that the stress and scramble of too much demand is far better than the alternative. Lines snaking around street corners and long waits for dinner tables felt like a dream to business owners just a few months ago — especially those dependent on tourism. And while some beach towns have benefited from city dwellers relocating full time to their second homes, the boom in domestic travel has provided much-needed relief for business owners after a long and challenging pandemic year.
“Even a mediocre summer on the back end of what we survived last year would have been a blow to us that could have taken a decade to recover from,” said Taylor Adams, deputy city manager of Virginia Beach. “A strong summer will fully establish us on the path to recovery.”
So, while many Virginia Beach restaurants are open five days a week instead of seven and restaurant owners are doubling as wait staff, an inn owner counted his blessings.
Linwood Branch has owned the Days Inn for more than 40 years — in addition to a hot dog stand, an ice cream parlor, a coffee shop and a retail store, all in Virginia Beach. Last year, Branch held onto bills until their due date and spent his nights arranging payment plans. He drove through the once-bustling streets of his favorite places and saw them empty. There were no lines at Funky’s Ice Cream.
To him, the now-perpetual shortage of guest towels, his 15 missing employees and the fact that he and his kids have to strip beds to avoid burning out his housekeepers — that’s chump change compared with the sheer joy of his town coming back to life.