ASBURY PARK, N.J./SYDNEY, May 28 (Reuters) - For more than a year, New Jersey restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach has been waiting for this moment: The U.S. Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of the Jersey Shore’s summer season, and the state is finally lifting indoor capacity limits as the coronavirus pandemic eases.
But the 56-year-old is pulling tables off the dining room floor, closing one of her restaurants an extra day a week and postponing the seasonal opening of another – all because she cannot find enough workers to operate her eateries.
"On Friday night, I left one of the venues and cried for 24 hours," said Schlossbach, who estimated she is still down about 50% from her normal staffing level at this time of year. "I’m just so overwhelmed – I feel like I'm underwater."
Half a world away, the state government in Queensland, Australia, is offering A$1,500 bonuses, free travel vouchers and discounted accommodation to entice people to go “Work in Paradise.”
"From chefs, waiters and bartenders through to tour guides and deckhands on the Great Barrier Reef, there are plenty of great jobs up for grabs," Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in launching the program.
Many of the world's major economies are shaking off the cobwebs from more than a year of hibernation as the COVID-19 pandemic raged. But the sector hit hardest by all the lockdowns - leisure and hospitality - is running into a new problem just as it gets the government greenlight to reopen: not enough workers.
Exactly what is driving the phenomenon is a matter of intense debate among economists, policymakers and politicians. Some point to ongoing health worries about returning to work in high-touch businesses, but other explanations include generous unemployment benefits, child care constraints, fewer international workers and competition from other sectors like construction that have held up well throughout the pandemic.
'REAL SKILL SHORTAGE'
The latest government data showed U.S. job openings in leisure and hospitality totaled a record 1.2 million in March, but employers in the sector added just 331,000 workers to their payrolls in April, signaling hundreds of thousands of positions went unfilled.
It's a similar story Down Under. Overall job openings in Australia are at their highest in more than 12 years and roughly 45% above pre-COVID-19 levels.
Australia’s early success in curbing the coronavirus pandemic allowed authorities to open the economy, including pubs, bars and restaurants. But a smaller pool of foreign workers due to the closure of international borders means hospitality staff are highly sought. In fact, that segment recorded the largest increase in job ads in April, up nearly 10%, government data showed.
The absence of foreign workers is a common theme.
In Britain, where in some cities there are 10 jobs in the sector available per job seeker, the job search website Adzuna estimates there were about a quarter million fewer applicants from Western Europe and North America than before the pandemic.
“We were challenged with Brexit; prices have gone up and there’s a real skill shortage in the UK,” Michelin-rated chef Clare Smyth said about the departure of experienced restaurant staff back to Europe.
Meanwhile, in southern New Jersey, Vicki Clark, the president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, said there are typically about 2,500 foreign students who fill seasonal jobs in that popular summer destination. Due to a pandemic-fueled backlog, the U.S. State Department has processed far fewer seasonal worker guest visas than usual, and Clark estimated there are fewer than 100 students confirmed this year.
Not everywhere is experiencing the labor squeeze, at least yet.
In Spain, for instance, hundreds of thousands of workers in the tourism sector are currently in furlough schemes and will simply be recalled to work for the summer, when tourist arrivals are in any case expected to fall well short of pre-pandemic levels.
Greece is also on a mission to salvage its summer season. With unemployment at 16%, the hospitality sector has not so far raised any concerns about a lack of staff.
MASSAGES FOR STAFF
In New Jersey beach towns such as Long Branch, Asbury Park and Point Pleasant Beach, "Help Wanted" signs dotted dozens of storefront windows and boardwalk stands this week, just as tens of millions of recently vaccinated Americans prepare to head for the Jersey Shore and other holiday hotspots around the country.
About 37 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this weekend, up 60% from a year ago, according to AAA. While still 13% below Memorial Day 2019, the weekend kicks off a summer that may look and feel increasingly normal.
The number of travelers checked onto airplanes by the Transportation Security Administration has been on a steady climb towards 2019 levels and now stands at roughly 70%.
Public events have begun reopening. Major League Baseball, which kicked off its season with strict attendance limits of around 20% in most stadiums, this weekend will see a wave of full stadium reopenings, and 21 of 30 ballparks are slated to drop their attendance restrictions by early July.
And just this week, seated diners at restaurants topped the 2019 level for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, according to data from reservation site OpenTable.
Ordinarily that would be music to the ears for Schlossbach in New Jersey, but she doesn't have the staff to keep up. She paid for massages for her exhausted team after they clocked about 60 hours in the span of four days last weekend.
“I don’t know how they’re going to sustain this for another three months,” she said. “After the year we had, to now be up against this challenge – I don’t know how much more the industry can take.”
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