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Signs indicating businesses are hiring and/or short staffed have been commonplace in windows and on billboards all around the resort this summer and do not seem to be going away as the holiday weekend approaches.

With perfect beach weather forecast for Labor Day weekend, the last hoorah of summer in Ocean City might end up being a significant struggle for the people who have spent months trying to keep up with the crowds.

“All the J-1s not coming really hurt us,” said Rolfe Gudelsky, the owner of the Sunset Grille, Sunset Marina and Micky Fins in West Ocean City, of the hundreds of international students who normally come to the resort and fill out the employee rosters at many businesses.

“In Ocean City, the most common sign you ever saw was help wanted,” he continued. “Them not coming this year has been devastating. You see how many restaurants just can’t pull lunch off … Every restaurant is burning out with employees.”

Covid travel bans put a huge damper on the J-1 student program before summer 2020. And while it has bounced back some for 2021, the number of workers who came to town this year is still a fraction of the typical total.

Susan Jones, the executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel Restaurant Association, said about 1,200 J-1 students came to Ocean City this year, whcih was a big improvement from zero last year, but still way below the typical 3,000 to 4,000 who come to work and travel.

And the J-1 shortage is just one challenge.

Jones said she has recently fielded calls about covid protocols for quarantining and testing as more cases are clocked around the county amid delta variant surges.

“I did have a couple of phone calls because there were people who lived with people, because of course that’s what happens, they all live together,” Jones said. “ … I did have an increase last week of people calling me and asking me what the protocols were, but I don’t believe it shut anybody down. And these were vaccinated people.”

Several business owners have also blamed an extra $300 weekly payments from the Federal Unemployment Pandemic Compensation benefits program for a shortage in workers.

The benefits were offered last year to help compensate for lost wages due to the pandemic. In an effort to get people back to work, Gov. Larry Hogan tried to end the program in July, but the decision was overruled in federal court.

The deadline is imminent now, though. According to the Maryland Department of Labor, the extra benefits are set to end for good on Saturday, Sept. 4.

Whether that will make any difference to the workforces of resort businesses remains to be seen, and for the coming busy weekend, owners will continue doing what they have been doing all summer to keep things running.

“I think everybody tried to do the best they could with the least amount of staff that they’ve ever had,” Jones said. “I do think that in the future it’s going to mean daily housekeeping could be a thing of the past. And some people might have to pay extra if they want daily housekeeping. That’s sort of becoming a trend that I’m seeing.”

For Gudelsky, the staffing shortages now make him leery of the fall.

“There’s always this time in September where you’re like, ‘oh my God, how am I going to survive?’ And then suddenly the demand backs down a little bit,” he said. “Last year, it was the weirdest year we ever had. The demand never dropped and pummeled us all the way into the winter.”

This story appears in the printed version of the Ocean City Today on Sept. 3, 2021.

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