OUTER BANKS, N.C. (WAVY) — The Outer Banks has seen a record number of vacationers despite the coronavirus pandemic. A smaller workforce and tourism boom are leaving business owners desperate to find employees and has forced many to make some tough choices, while getting creative to find staff.
It is impossible to miss the signs while driving down Croatan Highway in North Carolina’s Outer Banks: “help wanted,” “hiring all positions” and “going out of business.”
John Harris needs 20 employees to get his company, Kitty Hawk Kites, through the fall. Like many business owners in the Outer Banks, Harris relies on international and college students to fill positions.
Now, 18 months into the pandemic the annual influx of workers has dried up.
“We’ve raised our pay rates twice,” Harris told 10 On Your Side.
Harris recently started offering eight weeks of free housing as an incentive to work.
“This year, it’s been a challenge to just get applications,” Harris stated.
From coming up short to a lack of product, Harris says many items are out of stock.
“Kites, which is one of our primary businesses, there are a number of kite styles that we can’t get and we don’t know when we’re going to be able to get them,” Harris explained. “It’s been very frustrating [to] try to serve those customers.”
The struggle doesn’t end at the close of business.
“It’s hard for us to get something to eat, let alone the people that are vacationing here,” Harris said.
Beaman Hines, who’s lived in the Outer Banks all his life, owns five restaurants.
“I could use about another 45 to 50 employees. Every morning, you get up and there’s something going on. If it’s not COVID, somebody’s sick, if it’s not somebody can’t come in, somebody had to leave,” Hines explained.
Many days, Hines takes over washing dishes, cooking food, seating folks and bussing tables.
He has cut back hours at all of his eateries to give his employees a break.
“You can’t expect people to work like that and not give them some time off. I’ve had my mother come in and work before, I’ve had people that aren’t even in the restaurant business coming in and helping out and they know that we’re short-staffed,” Hines told 10 On Your Side.
Across the way from Hines, another business owner is struggling with shortages.
Kevin Cherry owns Mama Kwan’s Tiki Bar & Grill and says he was forced to temporarily shut down his new pizza shop next door after being open for only six weeks.
“Owners of restaurants have to multi-task. We have to be dishwashers, we have to be therapists to the staff as they come up and go man I just lost my place to live,” Cherry said.
While Mama Kwan’s has enough staff, Cherry is anticipating when he re-opens the pizza shop and needs people to staff it. Cherry even bought the properties behind his two restaurants to house future employees.
“I’ve purchased different houses just to help house the staff for the situations that I have. I have one house that has four bedrooms and I’ve got two cooks and one dishwasher living in there and I’m charging them minimal rent just to cover basically the bills on the property,” Cherry explained.
Cherry says the pandemic has not only caused short staffing in the Outer Banks but the quality of service to come up short.
“We’re all pushed to the edge and we’re trying to do our best. We care. We really do,” Cherry said.
Hines looks forward to the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Just got to get up every morning and know that you’ve got 100-something employees that work for me that depend on us being open so they can make their living. It’s tough but it’s something I still enjoy doing it, love it and hopefully I’ll be doing it for another 10 or so years,” Hines concluded.
For a list of open jobs in the Outer Banks, click here.
Editor’s note: Not long after airing our story, one of the businesses we spoke with, Kitty Hawk Kites said they started getting emails from those who watched and were interested in applying for a job.