Had a pandemic never happened, hospitality businesses in my hometown of Montauk, NY, would have spent recent weeks readying cadres of seasonal migrant workers to serve summer tourists. Instead, many are now worrying they won’t be able to hire enough workers at all. As the East End of Long Island slowly reopens along with the rest of New York, the town has struggled to find enough workers to meet the increasing demands of the burgeoning summer population.
While COVID-19 has impacted almost every sector of the economy and led to more than 40 million jobless claims, the pandemic has wreaked the most havoc in the service, hospitality, and leisure industries. As travel across the globe came to a virtual standstill this spring, the leisure and hospitality industry faced a 39.3% unemployment rate in April 2020, compared to the industry’s 4.5% unemployment rate just a year earlier. Although states and regions in the United States are slowly opening up, this summer will look significantly different for employers in the tourism industry and will be particularly difficult for resort towns that rely on seasonal migrant workers to fill summer shortages.
The challenges facing Montauk, a small village at the very tip of Long Island with a year-round local population of 3,655, encapsulate those for many places all over the nation as summer kicks into full gear.
Like many resort destinations with a small local resident population, Montauk depends heavily on seasonal migrant labor to support the number of vacationing tourists in the summer months. In the United States, 20% of workerss in the tourism industry are foreign-born. Since most of the roles in the industry are low-paid, low-status, and seasonal, it is often difficult to fill vacant roles with local, native-born Americans. Seasonal migrant workers including farmworkers, landscapers, hotel staff, resort workers, and cashiers and baggers at the local grocery store, play a crucial role in supporting the economy in its busiest months. Without them, Montauk would not be able to keep pace with the influx of tourists over the summer.
The COVID-19 pandemic escalated Montauk’s need for seasonal workers earlier in the season. In mid-March, when the virus was at its peak in New York, the East End community saw a significant influx of residents from New York City seeking refuge from the outbreak. The local rental market boomed, and as a result, Montauk and the neighboring communities were hit with peak season-level crowds, even though the local businesses had only enough resources and workers to service the local, winter-level population.
As the spring turned to early summer and COVID-19 case counts in New York declined, additional visitors have traveled out east, even as hotels and other businesses continue to struggle to hire enough employees to meet the demand. For example, as more people began to ready their homes for summer, landscapers were in high demand in April and May, but landscaping businesses struggled to fulfill orders because they didn’t have enough seasonal H-2B workers available. In addition, at the start of the outbreak in the middle of March, Long Island farms struggled to compensate for the lack of workers they were supposed to have received via the H-2A program.
Hotel owners also expressed concern that due to travel restrictions, they would not be able to hire employees through the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, as they have typically done for previous summer seasons. For years, Montauk has been a popular destination for Czech and Irish students who spend the summer working at the town’s resorts and hotels. However, since President Donald Trump took office, the number of Irish students participating in the program has declined, with many citing worries over the administration’s immigration policies.
A local business leader told me in order to compensate for the missing staff, hotel owners themselves are now scrubbing toilets and changing bed linens while watching the front desk. Many hotels had hoped that local residents who lost jobs due to the pandemic would step up and fill the roles left vacant by migrant workers, but according to local businesses, some unemployed residents receive more money on stimulus and unemployment checks than they if they were working full-time, and therefore are disincentivized to return to work until the stimulus payments end.
As lockdowns around the country end and we try to adjust to a new normal, we need to consider the vital role immigrants can play in supporting our local economies. While Montauk is certainly not a perfect reference point for the rest of the country, our community has and will be a patchwork of immigrants and locals alike. Immigrants are on the frontlines of the leisure, hospitality, and service industry in resort towns like Montauk. The East End of Long Island has faced seasonal migrant labor shortages in the past even without a pandemic adding fuel to the fire. As policymakers in Washington conceptualize what economic recovery from COVID-19 will look like, we cannot forget about the important role migrant workers play in local economies that are reliant on them.