OCEAN CITY — With the Memorial Day holiday upon us, summer has unofficially begun, and that means the Jersey Shore is facing its first busy weekend of the season.
In Ocean City, thousands of families descended on the beaches Saturday, basking in the sun under a cloudless sky. On the boardwalk, they chowed down on greasy pizza slices and soft-serve ice cream, played miniature golf under the watchful, light-up eyes of fake gorillas, and rode the Ferris wheel.
But some of the boardwalk businesses, many of them opening for the first time this year, are facing a labor shortage that they attribute to the new increased minimum wage, visa delays, and what felt like a winter that never was going to end.
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New Jersey raised its minimum wage in January from $8.44 to $8.60 an hour — which prompted some Shore business owners to look for more experienced employees.
"Because the minimum wage continues to go up, we can't afford to hire younger kids," said Chris Kazmarck, the manager at Surf Mall. "We can't afford to train them for as long as we used to in the past."
Kazmarck said that the hiring notice he put up outside the store has brought in far fewer potential employees than in previous years.
Doug Jewell, the owner of Air Circus Kites, also cited the new minimum wage as a reason for hiring difficulties. He also said that bad weather in April and May delayed the store's hiring processes a bit.
"A lot of people haven't been thinking about summer jobs yet," he said. "They will this weekend, but it's definitely become hard to give kids their first jobs."
To stand out in the hiring pool, Jewell said, younger applicants need the ability to do basic math, show up on time for shifts, and engage with customers. Although they sound like pretty basic requirements for a sales job, Jewell said that he has struggled in past years to find job candidates meeting them.
Shore businesses looking for temporary summer help have routinely turned to agencies that connect them with foreign-exchange students. But in the last two years, J-1 visas, which allow such students to live and work in the United States during the summer, have become harder to obtain. During his campaign, President Trump said he would get rid of the J-1 program, but the White House has not yet fulfilled that promise.
Joanne Quinn, the day manager at the Original Fudge Kitchen, said she's still waiting on the four European students she hired through an agency this year.
"They'd typically be here by now, but it seems like getting a J-1 visa these days is all luck," she said. "We used to have no trouble filling the positions, but we're going to need to hire four to five more people on top of the students to fill our shifts this year."
Filling night shifts is particularly challenging. In New Jersey, employees have to be at least 18 to work at night. The rise in living costs in the beach towns has made finding people eligible for such shifts even harder, said the Surf Mall's Kazmarck.
"It used to be that a bunch of college kids would rent a house together and we'd hire half of them," he said. "But because there's no low-income housing anymore, there are fewer people I can get to work the night shifts."
To prepare for the Memorial Day weekend crush, Kazmarck said he called in a ton of favors from former employees. With the next summer holiday a little more than a month away, he expects he'll need to hire more exchange students from Europe than he has in the past because of the current labor shortage.
"I'll need to get at least a dozen people in the next two weeks before the July crush hits," he said.