On Monhegan island, a tiny summer artist colony off the coast of Maine, the U.S. Postal Service is looking to hire a postmaster as the season arrives. The island has 34 year-round residents. Each one is being interviewed.
About 100 miles south on Martha’s Vineyard — a larger but equally seasonal summer Island — the USPS isn’t looking for one employee. It is looking for 15.
“We’re aggressively hiring,” said regional USPS spokesman Stephen Doherty. “In most places actually, but in particular down on the Cape and the Islands.”
The postal service isn’t alone. As the Island gears up for a second summer in the wake of the pandemic, essential businesses ranging from grocery stores to health clinics have joined seasonal businesses in the mad dash for staff, affixing help wanted signs to windows, sidewalks and warehouses with unusual ubiquity.
Although an annual rite of passage, the quest for summer employees has grown more extreme and spread wider this year, driven by a perfect storm of factors including the ongoing pandemic, a slowed process for temporary work visas and a housing crisis at its peak.
In interviews this week, Island business owners including restaurateurs, health care providers, postal workers and others described a new challenge: the expectation of more customers than ever and no one to serve them. It isn’t Monhegan island, but it’s close. “The . . . pitfalls are similar,” said Mr. Doherty, who said Island post offices are looking to expand their seasonal workforce by about 50 per cent to manage increased demand. “We’re at the whim of the weather, and the ferry, and the available personnel on the Island,” he said.
At Cronig’s Market, owner Steve Bernier said hiring the usual cohort of J1 visa workers to staff his two grocery stores through the summer has been an uphill battle.
“Last summer was the first time when nobody showed up. This summer seems to be a carbon copy of last summer . . . We were hoping for better, but we just haven’t moved,” he said. Mr. Bernier, who plans to reopen his up-Island market next week after a yearlong hiatus, is bracing for a short-staffed season unlike any other.
“If it wasn’t for the commitment I’ve made to the community, the up-Island store should not be open. I need every one of those hands down here to handle the Vineyard Haven store,” he said. He plans to keep both stores closed on Sundays through the summer.
Mr. Doherty said staffing post offices has been a challenge nationally, as the country grows more reliant on mail deliveries during the pandemic. On the Island, the challenge has been especially pronounced.
“People have changed the way they use the mail,” he said. “The package volume has been astronomical. We’ve been retooling everything from our vehicles to our facilities to accommodate that switch.”
Businesses essential and otherwise have joined a fast-growing list of help wanted ads, including in the Gazette. Island Health Care is hiring for multiple nursing positions. The YMCA needs counselors for its summer camp. The Steamship Authority is looking for dock workers. On Tuesday, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services held a job fair for 21 vacant positions.
Meanwhile, record hotel and rental bookings portend a bustling summer.
“We’re really in new territory coming out of Covid,” said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. “This is the opposite of one year ago when we were closing everything . . . the pendulum has swung in an opposite direction . . . but now we need the available workforce.”
Typically, the Island seasonal workforce is bolstered by foreign workers on temporary work visas, like H2B and J1 visas.
A Trump-era ban on temporary foreign work visas expired April 1, but by then it was too late for many businesses to hire from abroad, given a nearly month-long processing period.
Mr. Bernier, who has contacted nearly 20 foreign student workers for the summer said as of Wednesday, only one was still interested. “It’s an issue to do with timing . . . If they haven’t gotten the green light by now, they’re not coming,” he said.
The Island affordable housing crisis has added extra weight to the problem.
Michael Donaroma, owner of Donaroma’s Nursery, Landscaping and Floral Design in Edgartown, said he is down 25 per cent of his usual summer staff, which he attributed directly to a lack of affordable housing.
“There just aren’t any places for them to stay, I think is the biggest problem,” said Mr. Donaroma. “It’s getting to be an employee market there.”
And with the busy beaches and bustling Main streets of a Vineyard summer a few short months away, many businesses are still recovering from a rocky winter — and year.
Michael Brisson, owner and head chef at L’Etoile in Edgartown, said his usual summer staff of 38 shrank to 16 last summer. This year, he’ll need to hire at least three more just to reach that number. The problem is especially pronounced in the kitchen, where Mr. Brisson has only one other employee.
“My word for the year is like restraint,” the veteran chef said, describing his plan to open five or six days a week, depending on kitchen staff. “Don’t do more than you can do, you know, don’t tarnish your brand. Just do the best you can,” he said.
At Rosewater Market in Edgartown, manager Jared Salvatore said he has had fewer summer applicants. At Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven, owner Melissa Scammell said she has felt the impact for over a year. Ditto for Dusan Veselinovic of Salvatore’s Ristorante.
Many spoke passionately about the need for longer-term solutions.
“There’s not too many ways you can fake this — I don’t have any tricks up my sleeve or a magic wand,” said Mr. Bernier. “There’s nobody really to blame for it, it’s just the way it is, but we better not be in the same shoes next summer.”
Noah Asimow and Aaron Wilson contributed reporting.