Summer Labor Dynamic Is Annual Dance of Employers, Work Force and Landlords


Early reads on the summer work force bring more questions than answers this year.

Through April and May, business owners scratched their heads, asking where the workers were. This week, new arrivals in the work force stumbled about the Vineyard, shaking their heads and wondering where the jobs are.

"Because we're open year-round, we usually get people coming down in March and April looking for jobs. We get a jump on everyone else. This year, it was very late. I usually have everyone hired well before May. This year, I was grabbing people off the street the first few weeks of May," said Mike Santoro, managing partner for Season's Eatery and Pub, the Atlantic Connection and the Lookout Tavern in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Santoro's staff nearly triples in the summer from about 30 year-round employees.

It was a common refrain in the business community this week. Maria Metters, owner of Bowl & Board of the Vineyard, kept her Help Wanted sign hanging from mid-April until early this month - an unusually long period of hunting for workers.

"In years past, I've always turned people away. Now, it seems like I'm always taking applications," Mrs. Metters said Wednesday, taking a break from serving customers at the Vineyard Haven retail store.

And as the summer season crept closer, employers found themselves anxious to take those who happened to walk in the door - questioning whether or not the mass migration of college kids would actually come this year.

"Every year it seems like the college kids get here a little later and they leave a little earlier," said Frank Pellegrino, partner in the Seafood Shanty, Fiesta Mexicana and the Quarterdeck in Edgartown.

Business owners who seemed to slide into the season, securing help just in time for the summer's arrival, consider themselves lucky.

"There were much fewer applicants than in years past. We were lucky to have assembled a staff," said Jude Tucker, office manager for Farm Neck Golf Club, noting that she brings on about 60 new employees in the summer.

But now, the help wanted signs are coming down from the windows, and listings are disappearing from the newspaper classified. Now, employers are fielding calls from summer workers looking for jobs that no longer exist.

The Edgartown parks department, Bongo in Vineyard Haven, Season's Eatery and Pub, the Navigator Restaurant in Edgartown and Sodapops in Vineyard Haven are now turning applicants away.

"They college kids are just now getting here. They're in a rough spot. We don't need them because the others already came," said Robert Zeltzer, owner of Sodapops, noting that he's telling students to check back later when business picks up. "I'm getting calls constantly, but we just aren't hiring right now."

But these deadlines won't work for young workers like Paul Knapps. For nearly two weeks, this University of Iowa student has been filling out job applications, making phone calls and knocking on doors with no success.

"Everyone's telling me that things haven't picked up yet. The crowds aren't here. I have another week to look, or I have to go home. I need to save money for school," said Mr. Knapps, who has free room and board at a friend's house.

Some employers admit they're keeping a modest staff this year, compared to previous years - bracing themselves for a tourist season that may not quite bloom.

"Normally we would have staffed more people. But business has been slow so far this year. But July's around the corner, and that's another question," said Alan Counsell, manager of the Navigator Restaurant and Boathouse Bar.

The domino effect of summer workers' schedules not meshing with business owners' needs could force an already scarce supply of employees off the Island before the height of the tourist season.

"Employers are turning people away and telling them to check back later. Now they've gone elsewhere, leaving the Island because they can't make it work," said Linda Malcouronne, general manager of the West Chop Club and former president of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

More and more employers over the past several years have weaned themselves from dependence on an unpredictable work force of college students. The young workers' late arrivals and early departures - a month and a half before the conclusion of the hectic shoulder season - have led some business owners to dip into labor supplies from overseas.

Mike McCourt, manager of Murdick's Fudge, assembles a staff of more than 20 over the winter, gathering workers from the Caribbean to Europe.

"It's almost like a professional work force," Mr. McCourt said. "I run into problems with college kids. Sure, they're fun to be around, but we run into problems in September. And sometimes, their priorities are not in the right place. They'd rather be at the beach or the night before is a bit too much for them to handle the next day."

Ms. Malcouronne said the dependence on foreign workers - namely on folks from Brazil, the Island's most sizable immigrant work force - has spread into nearly all of the tourist-based businesses.

"If you took away the Brazilian population, I don't think there's a restaurant or an inn on the Island that could keep going," she said, praising the immigrant population for their work ethic and willingness to adapt to the Island's challenging housing situation.

Aside from the Brazilian population, which has grown to more than 2,000 people year-round, seasonal employers are pulling heavily from programs like Bunac, a worker exchange program between the United Kingdoms and the United States. University students from these countries typically get out of school a week or two before their American peers, and most stay until the end of September - a blessing for businesses that flourish through Columbus Day weekend.

Even the business owners who haven't tapped into the Island's pool of foreign workers are finding ways to reduce their reliance on college students.

Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs and Bowl & Board owners say one reason they stay open year-round is to avoid jump-starting their businesses and scrounging for summer help at the beginning of each season.

"We do it that way so that I'm not at the mercy of who walks through the door [in the summer]," said Bob Skydell, owner and manager of Offshore Ale, noting that only a quarter of his full summer staff is seasonal labor.

"It's not exactly cost-effective [to stay open year-round], but I need to keep my two year-round employees so that I don't have new staff on the floor by themselves in the summer," said Mrs. Metters of Bowl & Board.

Mario DeBari, owner of Mario's Taxi, is simply limiting business growth to avoid relying on seasonal workers. "I'm getting smaller to protect myself," Mr. DeBari said, noting that high cost of living is running off the summer workforce.

Most employers' speculations about the fluctuating summer work force start and stop with the lack of affordable housing. Rentals that make their way onto the One Stop Job Shop, a free housing and job list managed by the chamber of commerce, typically start at $150 a week for a room. This year, the volume of listings dropped 40 per cent.

Often landlords renting houses to young workers for the entire season demand rent money in advance - cash that's hard to come by without a steady income.

"Summer housing initiatives have hit a snag lately. We truly believe that the key to stabilizing the summer work force is housing," Ms. Malcouronne said, noting that efforts to build dormitory-style housing near the airport have clashed with an airport master plan, a 20-year plan for development at and around the Martha's Vineyard Airport recently approved by airport commissioners.

And housing has become a chicken and egg conundrum for employers and workers alike. Many employers won't hire folks without secure housing. Many potential workers won't relocate for the summer without a job lined up.

For summer workers like Kate Russo, a student at Colby College in Maine, housing had to be secured prior to coming to the Vineyard - a stipulation that forced her to get a job with an employer who secured housing ahead of time for workers.

"I couldn't make it work otherwise. I looked for low-cost housing, and it didn't exist. It was very important to me that I leave here with money," Ms. Russo said, noting that she found a job as a busser for the Harborview Hotel.

"Word has gotten out that the Vineyard is low in housing and jobs are tight in relation to it. It's getting impossible. This particular year will be the indicator for what happens to the Vineyard," Mr. DeBari said.