Summer season is well underway; restrictions have more or less lifted and vaccinations have gathered steam. While we may still need to endure some Covid related precautions, Summer 2021 is certainly looking more optimistic when compared to the same time last year. For amusement parks, beachside hotels and restaurants this convergence of factors couldn’t come at a better time as they eagerly anticipate an influx of visitors this – after all it’s their boom time. But, all is not as they thought. As businesses reopen and guests rush to dining rooms, restaurants have been confronted with a dramatic shortage of seasonal work. After more than a year of pandemic-fueled economic hardship, the lack of available workers now threatens to sabotage their best efforts to stay financially afloat.

Seasonal labor shortage: Coronavirus has severely limited foreign travel
After absorbing nearly half of the destruction caused by the pandemic shutdowns, the leisure and hospitality industry is still in a deep hole, down 2.5 million jobs from early last year. For the past 14 months plus, bar and restaurants have been anxiously looking forward to the day when their establishments would again be filled with the buzz and chatter of happy customers. But in the weeks since businesses have been allowed to fully reopen things haven’t gone the way they had envisioned. Businesses are no longer concerned about wary diners or capacity limits – the latter which was responsible for sending sales volumes into a tailspin last year. Instead, they are now struggling to find and retain enough employees to handle a full house.

There are a number of factors that are contributing to the shortage. Many direct blame solely on the unemployment benefit supplement that started in the last year. But for the bars, restaurants and other industries along the coasts that rely on summertime demand, they say that is not the issue. For them, it’s the lack of international students that’s proving to be their biggest challenge – if not the biggest impediment to their recovery.

Pre-Covid, there were more than 108,000 people participating in the summer work visa program alone, according to 2019 data from the State Department. But coronavirus has severely limited foreign travel. Not only are some students wary of travelling or been instructed it is unwise to do so due to the year that’s gone, but consulates and embassies been instructed to process employment visas as a last priority. In addition, U.S. consulates around the world were shuttered at one point or another and continue to have reduced hours because of Covid-19 risks. Officials say they did warn of potential significant delays in visa processing which may prevent many foreign workers and students who would normally visit on J-1 summer work visas from coming to the U.S. for jobs.

Not surprisingly, the program’s annual visa cap is reported to be “well below market demand.” Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, estimated the industry has about 70,000 openings in the state alone. Next door in Virginia, Robert Melvin, director of government affairs for the the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, said the lack of access to foreign workers is “really holding everyone back in a big way”. Kings Dominion, a Virginia amusement park 75-miles south of Washington, D.C., for instance, had to postpone opening its water park until mid-June, a month late, citing a labor shortage and “the availability of seasonal associates.” Many other restaurants and hotels have reduced opening hours, close for certain days each week and limiting their guests due to a lack of staff. These measures have also been introduced to alleviate fatigue and burnout among workers who have to pick up the slack of a reduced work force.

In the past, temporary seasonal work programs faced ongoing criticism they take jobs away from American workers, undercut U.S. wages and may lead to exploitation. But Covid has finally debunked that age-old myth. It has proved the importance of the work-travel programs. International students do not “rob” locals of job opportunities, but rather an essential component to fill positions to meet summertime demand.

Seasonal labor shortage: A case of a little too late
The labor shortage squeeze has businesses groups once again lobbying Congress to offer more guest worker visas under the H-2B seasonal guest worker visa program – which they warn is essential to the economic recovery this time around. It seems, the fear of the lack of foreign workers and its effect on economic recovery has reignited bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to reform the H-2B program – but as for this summer, it’s more likely the case of a little too late.

“I really do believe this too shall pass…but it’s going to be a rough summer. ” Cheri Lindsey – Lindsey’s family restaurant in East Wareham.