Seasonal employers remain upbeat about summer season
By Jamie Organski
Tell-tale signs of an Adirondack summer are popping up in Old Forge: Enchanted Forest Water Safari has opened, and the farmers market is in full swing, and popular events have returned. Yet, big questions loom over tourism-dependent communities such as this one. Mainly one big question: How will staffing struggles, compounded by high inflation, impact small businesses that depend on the dollars that summer tourism brings?
While businesses such as the Front Door Diner/Back Door Bar are grateful to remain open year round with limited, yet sufficient staff, others, such as Fastrac, Kinney Drugs, and DiOrio’s Supermarket aren’t as fortunate. Help Wanted signs line the roadside from Thendara through Inlet. With many businesses relying on seasonal and visa workers to get them through the summer months, it’s a sign that Inlet Tourism Director Adele Burnett finds troubling.
“I am concerned for businesses not having enough help, and having to cut back on hours,” Burnett said. “This can’t be good for visitors to arrive and have places closed, or closed early.”
Staffing shortage is a common, pervasive problem, said Town of Webb Publicity Director Mike Farmer.
“Workers want more money, and many are not interested in service industry jobs, [although the] demand is increasing, as more visitors/new residents come to our area,” Farmer said. “[It] may change as stimulus money and unemployment benefits run out, but employees still must get here and/or live here.”
Enter visa workers and high school/college students, two groups that would fill gaps in securing seasonal staff for Enchanted Forest Water Safari, local restaurants, and more. Now, those groups seem to be dwindling in number.
Katie Wojdyla, vice president and director of marketing for Enchanted Forest, said the theme park is employing around 375 staff this year. Of that number, 55% are visa workers, up from 40% last year. While the water park is still hiring for the summer (offering team member housing for those 18 years and older), the staffing outlook is better than last year, Wojdyla said.
“We were happy to embrace a more normal opening this year, without a list of COVID-related restrictions,” she said. “I think we may see an increase of day-trippers, as we are a central New York destination. People want to get out and enjoy the weather with their families. We can’t wait to get started.”
Marie DiOrio of DiOrio’s Supermarket has had difficulty hiring enough staff in preparation for summer, noting many school-aged kids no longer desire summer jobs.
“We have had a handful of people applying,” DiOrio said. “I spend about two hours of my day trying to get international students here. This week, finally, we may have enough part-timers (international students from Water Safari) so we don’t have to close the deli on Sundays. School kids only want to work a few hours a week, some have sports during the week, and some just don’t care about money.”
The high gas, inflation factor
Farmer predicts that the “fewer visits—longer stays” trend will continue.
“During the height of the pandemic, visitors wanted to enjoy their pursuits with more distance and separation,” Farmer said. “Last summer, many part-time residents were hosting family/friends for weeks at a time. Now, the economy and the price of gas is having the same effect.”
Burnett agreed, stating that while gas prices may have an effect on people choosing to travel, so did the pandemic, and Inlet remained busy during the summer of 2020. While families may avoid traveling longer distances for vacation, Webb’s primary market is the Thruway corridor from the Mohawk Valley through Central New York to Rochester, according to Farmer.
“For millions of New York families we are close enough for one-tank trips,” he said.
Inlet resident Amanda Miller is co-owner of two local restaurants, Screamen Eagle, and the Double Eagle Bar and Grill, and also works part-time as a postal worker.
Screamen Eagle is still short-staffed and they are lacking kitchen help for Double Eagle, Miller said, and although they have 3 J1 students arriving at the end of June, they need them now. In the summer, Miller works from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., juggling time between both restaurants, and shifts at the Old Forge Post Office.
“This is what I have to do to fill in the staffing gaps,” Miller said. “Working this many hours means I can allow my employees to work less, so they don’t get burned out. I still have some open positions, but no one wants to work in food service; it is hard work.”
Miller hopes patrons understand price increases are done to cover costs being imposed on small business owners.
“Literally everything costs more, and everyone is feeling the pinch,” Miller said. “Raising prices isn’t about making more profit, it’s about paying employees a fair wage so they can support their families. It’s about being able to buy the same quality ingredients we are known for, because our customers deserve the best.”
All resort areas are grappling with the same problems, Farmer said, adding that even though tensions are high as summer looms, Webb and Inlet are equipped to handle the load.
“We have built [our] economy by serving multi-generational families,” Farmer said. “People can go anywhere and enjoy things they like to do. We have more of those things in one place, we’re more affordable, accessible, and visitors like the character of our communities, and that comes from who we are every day.”
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