A hiring 'nightmare': Delaware beach businesses struggle to find staff ahead of busy summer

Emily Lytle
Delaware News Journal

From frying french fries to greeting guests, Delaware’s coastal businesses rely on a strong workforce to meet the tourists and residents who flock to their favorite restaurants, hotels and shops in the summer months.

But as more people get vaccinated and make plans to hit the beaches in coming months, “help wanted” signs remain in many windows up and down the coast.

Some business owners have called this year’s hiring season a “nightmare,” while others in the hospitality industry worry that an employee shortage may worsen if the state further lifts COVID-19 restrictions and capacity limits.

Especially after this winter, which has been one of the busiest on the books for many businesses in Delaware’s resort towns, owners and managers are bracing for an expected busy summer season and are hoping they have enough staff to ride the wave.

While some beach businesses hire employees year-round and others quadruple their staff during the summer, the more than half a dozen people interviewed for this story all said they were feeling the pressure this year.

Help wanted sign in window

This seemingly universal need has prompted some employers to get creative – everything from calling local schools in hopes of finding students on summer break to flagging people down on the street as they walk by the restaurant.

While it is not clear what may be driving the difficult hiring season, the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce heard from enough businesses that it plans to host a job fair for the first time in years.

It will feature more than 70 businesses Friday, April 16 in the Rehoboth Mall.

BACKGROUND:One year later: Delaware restaurants still struggling from COVID-19 pandemic

JOB FAIR:Here is the Facebook event for the job fair April 16th

Typically, businesses host their own job fairs or can attract enough applicants through individual marketing, but this year called for something different, said Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.

With many job fairs going virtual this past year, Everhart said she was grateful to secure the Rehoboth Mall as a safe venue where employers and potential employees could socially distance.

Employers in need range from restaurants to banks to toy shops, and beyond seasonal employees, many businesses are seeking candidates for full-time and year-round positions.

Hoping for the best

Hiring local employees can actually work out for the better, said managers at Dogfish Head Brewery and Chris Agharabi – owner of Theo’s Steaks, Sides and Spirits and Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar. All said they've found that locals who care about their jobs have contributed to a positive work culture. 

That’s why opportunities like this upcoming job fair are ideal.

“Just because someone can take an order or flip a pan doesn't mean they’re going to be a good fit,” Agharabi said. “We want to look for people who have a passion for food and service.”

In an already grueling industry, Agharabi said people who work in the restaurant industry have to – at least minutely – love what they do. With the COVID-19 pandemic convincing some to shift to a career away from the frontline, it’s even more important to get these job openings in front of potential employees.

UNEMPLOYMENT:How Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package affects Delaware unemployment benefits

Everhart agreed that people leaving or losing their job due to the pandemic has prompted the need for the job fair, as well as uncertainty around the J1 visa program, which allows international students to come and work seasonal jobs like those in the resort towns.

Many restaurants and other food establishments have come to rely on international students, and some are concerned that this year may echo last summer when a ban on J1 visas prevented most students from working and traveling at the Delaware beaches.

That suspension of J1 visas has now expired, but international students and businesses are in limbo, waiting for embassies overseas to fully reopen and approve the applications. 

Thrasher's French Fries next to Gus & Gus in Rehoboth Beach.

Dean Shuttleworth, general manager and part-owner of Thrasher’s French Fries in Rehoboth, said the longer this takes, the less likely businesses like his will be able to hire international students.

“I have to proceed as if we’re not getting J1s and just hope for the best that I can get enough Americans,” Shuttleworth said.

J1 VISAS:These volunteers make international students at Delmarva beaches feel welcome. COVID-19 canceled their plans

Others agreed and crossed their fingers in hope that some J1s will make it in time for the peak season.

What’s causing the employee shortage?

Not every business hires J1 students and the need for employees goes beyond seasonal staff. 

No one could pinpoint a single driving force behind the shortage of applicants, but most said that it’s likely the combination of many pandemic-related factors.

Jessica Nathan, director of operations at Bethany Blues Restaurant in Lewes and Bethany Beach, said she noticed that not only was the employee pool smaller, but restaurants like hers found themselves with new positions to fill as they adapted to increased carryout orders or monitored new safety protocols.

Sometimes teachers worked weekends in the restaurant, but with the heavy burden of virtual or hybrid learning, many decided to not take the extra job.

Others guessed that maybe people couldn’t find childcare to work their typical part-time jobs.

Brewing supervisor John Klein checks on the packaging line at Dogfish Head in Milton in 2015.

Several people said they have heard that people are not comfortable working in a restaurant or in the hotel industry as the coronavirus remains a risk. Agharabi said he lost a great hire who later decided she was too uncomfortable with the exposure.

He joined others who say restaurants are some of the safest places to be because of the state health department’s careful eye on the industry. Another reassurance he and others emphasized: their restaurants are doing OK financially.

“I know people just don’t want to work in a restaurant," he said. "I can’t put my finger on it."

MORE:Delaware has struggled to move to a $15 an hour minimum wage. Why supporters have new hope

Knowing about the high unemployment rate and hearing that some people may have flexible schedules or taken time off school, Eric Beck, director of operations for Dogfish Head in Milton, said he was surprised when applications didn’t come pouring in.

“I would’ve thought that, you know, there’d be a long line outside wanting to work and make beer and spirits," Beck said, "but we just haven’t seen it yet.” . 

Everhart argued that people who are on unemployment may not be incentivized to rejoin the workforce. Yet, Delaware’s unemployment benefit is lower than its neighboring states at a maximum of $400 per week.

READ MORE:How Delaware's low unemployment benefits take an 'exhausting,' 'depressing' toll

Bryan Deptula owns Canalside Inn in Rehoboth Beach with his family, and he has advanced education in leadership and management. While he agreed that some people will stay on unemployment, he believes it won’t be the majority.

File photo of Julia Gilley, then-student at University of Delaware, working as a counter sales employee at Grotto on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach.

“Many more people would rather contribute to society than be on unemployment because it gives them a sense of purpose,” he said. 

His story of searching for employees is also a little different because his family only opened the Canalside Inn months before the pandemic started. 

While Deptula was able to hire a few employees through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, he is now looking to grow his workforce.

A spirit of resiliency

For seasonal and year-round businesses alike, hiring the employees they need is all about being ready for the summer and anything it might bring.

“All signs are pointing towards a busy summer. I don’t see it slowing down,” said Ryan Schwamberger, operations manager for Dogfish Head’s restaurants, tasting room and inn in Rehoboth Beach and the Lewes area.

But many managers and owners are optimistic and said this hiring challenge has been just another way they've had to adapt.

Bethany Blues, like other restaurants at the beach, has taken to social media to seek applicants.

Take Agharabi, who transformed his steakhouse into a burger joint during the pandemic. He knows what it’s like to wade through the unknown. 

Like in the upcoming job fair, the beach businesses also continue to come together as many face this same hurdle.

“I do feel like the beach community is a closer-knit community,” Nathan said. “People still have each other’s backs.”

Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at elytle@doverpost.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.