Resort wants for workers

Ocean City finds few solutions to labor shortage

June 06, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- If money talks, you can't prove it by Frankie Lucas.

The manager of a U.S. 50 convenience store, Lucas has been waving cold hard cash -- a $1,000 bonus -- from a banner hanging on the West Ocean City business. She has hired three of the two dozen workers she needs for the summer season.

"This is the second year we've offered it to anybody who stays through Labor Day," Lucas says. "We started out with $500, and that didn't seem to do it. It's so much worse than last year. You keep thinking it can't get any worse, but I'm working at least 60 hours a week."

Like Lucas, most other Ocean City merchants are celebrating the opening of what looks like another stellar year at the beach, but they've discovered that the flip side of a booming economy is a perennial scramble to hire the 10,000 or so housekeepers, waiters, cooks, boardwalk hawkers, cashiers and other workers it takes to run Maryland's summer resort.

Everywhere along the 10-mile strip of sand, and in the commercial corridors outside town, the story's the same. Last year's labor shortage, which affected 70 percent of Ocean City's 300 or so restaurants and hotels -- not to mention thousands of other businesses -- is not going away.

Business people can recite a familiar list of causes: declining birthrates in the 1970s and 1980s, high-priced housing that can cost students as much as half their summer earnings, and the lowest unemployment rate in three decades. This year, a new Wal-Mart store in Berlin drew 220 full- and part-time workers out of a tight job market.

So high school and college students who traditionally have filled the resort's seasonal jobs seem more scarce than ever. The result is that Maryland's beach resort has hung out a permanent "Help Wanted" sign.

It's not as if merchants aren't trying. Some are hiring more senior citizens, some are counting on increasing numbers of European college students who arrive in mid-June and stay through Labor Day, and some have added such recruiting wrinkles as Internet advertising.

There's no obvious solution, however.

"We've tried running an ad on the Internet, and it's given us some visibility," says Linda Brenner, whose family owns Capt. Bob's bay-side restaurant. "But you can't hire somebody off the Internet. You've got to interview them in person. Nothing takes the place of that."

The town's payroll increases sharply during the summer as the work force of 500 doubles with the addition of beach patrol lifeguards, seasonal police officers and other workers.

With soaring housing costs scaring off some qualified applicants, city officials are beginning to talk about converting two vacant downtown buildings, the old police station and the former District Court building, into barracks for public safety employees.

Beach business groups have extended their marketing efforts to college campuses in New York and New Jersey in addition to job fairs at Maryland schools. The largest event this year drew 800 prospective workers. Previous expos drew 1,800.

"Obviously, this is nothing new. It's something we've lived with for a while," says Linda Wright, executive director of Ocean City's Chamber of Commerce. "Despite our best efforts, it hasn't changed much."

One thing resort officials vow to try again is a job fair aimed at attracting retirees. Although many resort employers say they're hiring older workers for jobs that used to go to teens, the daylong recruiting event last month drew more employers than senior citizens.

"It was disappointing, but the real problem was that we had very little time to organize and to get the word out," says Susan Jones, who heads the town's hotel, motel and restaurant association.

"There's no question we'll try again, and we'll be looking for some new solutions," she says. "But if the economy continues like this, there's a limit to what you can do. It's very competitive."

Labor statistics released last week showed Maryland's unemployment rate at 3.4 percent in April, the second-lowest rate ever. But in the historically poor Lower Eastern Shore, joblessness is almost triple the state average.

Worcester County, which includes Ocean City, had the highest unemployment rate in Maryland in April, 9.4 percent. By contrast, Baltimore's jobless rate was 6.9 percent in April.

Lack of transportation is the chief difficulty for many would-be workers in rural Somerset County and in southern Worcester Coun- ty, officials say. Worcester County runs buses to Ocean City, but service would have to be extended for beach businesses to attract more workers from small towns such as Princess Anne and Pocomoke City.

At Salisbury State University, a coalition that includes the Lower Shore Private Industry Council, university business researchers, and transportation and social service officials from Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties is studying regional transportation needs.

"We need to find out if there is some untapped manpower source in the county if the transportation system improves," says Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias. "If there are people willing to work, it could be part of the solution.

"In the meantime, this year you're going to see a lot of owners printing the T-shirts, making the waffles, manning the counters. We don't have much choice."

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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