Jobs chasing workers in Ocean City Lack of summer help affects 70% of resort, causes seller's market

Victim of economic boom

Employers look overseas for help, offer low-cost housing

June 14, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Maryland's resort city is getting down to the serious business of summer, and Tom Pearson is still out beating the bushes for the scarcest of all commodities this year -- workers.

Long gone are the days of running a few help-wanted ads and waiting for college and high school students to show up, says Pearson, personnel director for the oceanfront Sheraton Fontainebleau.

In a booming economy that has plunged the nation's unemployment rate to a 28-year low, it's the young people who are calling the shots.

"It's just a fact of life, a way of doing business now -- we can't wait for them to come to us," says Pearson. "You have to be innovative, creative. You have to get out and sell them on what you have to offer."

Merchants say finding seasonal help is becoming more and more difficult. They blame low birthrates in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They blame the high cost of Ocean City housing, which leads students to prefer work near home to save money. Mostly, they blame old-fashioned supply and demand.

The situation is in contrast to a place such as Baltimore, where too few entry-level jobs are available.

In Ocean City, with 70 percent of the city's 300-plus restaurants and hotels facing a labor shortage, employers are trying everything from providing cheap housing to end-of-summer incentives and free transportation.

Many offer bonuses of 25 cents to 50 cents for each hour worked during the summer for students who stay past Labor Day. And virtually everyone is paying at least a dollar above the $5.15 minimum wage.

Recruiting overseas

As fewer U.S. students arrive in Ocean City each year, a half-dozen international employment agencies are recruiting students from Ireland, Britain, France and former Eastern bloc nations such as Latvia. Foreign students fill perhaps 10 percent of the city's 10,000 to 12,000 seasonal jobs.

Last week, Chamber of Commerce and economic development officials took to the airwaves, outlining their employment woes on "Newsnight Maryland," public television's news discussion show.

For students such as Alfonso Munoz, a senior at Salisbury State University, it couldn't be a better time to live and work at the beach. After landing jobs close to home and living rent-free with his parents in Annapolis the last few summers, Ocean City looks like a lot more fun.

With a well-paying job as a valet at the Princess Royale Oceanfront Hotel, he splits the rent six ways on a three-bedroom condominium. If the tips are as good as he's heard during the season's peak in July and August, he figures he'll still take some money home.

"I'd never done this, and I thought I might as well, since this will be my last year of school," Munoz says. "The first month down here, it's been a little tight, but everybody says the money gets really good later on. So far, I'm having a great time."

Farther down Coastal Highway, Alice Bird, who owns two candy stores in a strip mall, can't find the clerks she needs. As a small retailer, she knows she's no match for the recruiting muscle of big outfits such as the Princess Royale. And the first slots filled are always the "glory jobs" for waiters, bellhops and valets -- who often earn more in tips than in hourly wages.

Gouging landlords

Still, Bird believes that if more affordable housing were available, more workers would come. "The kids pretty much have to work two jobs if they're going to pay rent, eat and save any money," Bird says. "The landlords are just gouging these kids."

Many apartments and condominiums cost $4,000 to $6,000 for the season.

Large employers such as the Princess Royale, Phillip's Restaurants and Trimper Amusements provide housing for some their workers, especially for the Europeans, who are prized because they can stay past Labor Day, when U.S. students are usually returning to classes.

Granville Trimper's 28 small apartments perched above a boardwalk arcade are a steal at $50 to $60 a week. Packing four students into each unit, he's ensured a steady supply of workers to man the arcades, roller coasters and rides.

More than 80 of the students who rent the apartments are Europeans.

"This week, we've had to leave some rides unused because we don't have enough help," Trimper says. "But the foreign students are starting to arrive now. Providing housing really helps us retain our students year to year."

In addition to traditional methods such as on-campus recruiting at college job fairs in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Ocean City business leaders are looking at longer-term solutions for a problem that has become systemic for resort towns.

Year-round labor needed

"Seasonal economies have problems like this, but Ocean City has evolved into a year-round resort," says Fred Smith, Career Connections coordinator for Worcester County schools. "The city really needs to concentrate on building a year-round work force."

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