Summer Staffing: Parks Stay Flexible
Three weeks. That’s how quickly Sabra Reyes and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk team were able to hire nearly 500 employees.
While that is certainly a success for Reyes, the director of human resources for the California seaside attraction, it’s something she’s never had to do before.
“While we have staffing challenges every year, looking back on prior years, we were sitting in a really good spot before, but I don’t think we appreciated it,” she says.
Like many of her peers working in human resources, Reyes is in the midst of a hiring challenge. Attractions leaders, like other industries and professions around the country, are struggling to fill vacancies. Thousands of positions across the attractions industry remain open as summer begins as all efforts are made to interview, hire, and onboard new employees as safely and quickly as possible.
“It’s certainly been a bigger struggle than I’ve ever seen before,” says Denise Beckson, vice president of human resources and government relations for Morey’s Piers and Water Parks in Wildwood, New Jersey. “I’ve heard people refer to it as the employment pandemic.”
Beckson has filled about half of the 1,500 seasonal positions Morey’s Piers needs to maintain normal operations for the summer.
Beyond the sluggish return of seasonal employees, some of whom may not be comfortable returning to such public jobs and others who could be choosing to collect state and federal unemployment supplements until they expire, other factors are resulting in so many jobs remaining open at the kickoff of summer in the United States.
“I think it’s the perfect storm,” says Beckson.
Beckson and Reyes both say they rely on visa programs (the J-1 and H-2B programs for Morey’s Piers and just the J-1 program for Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk) to supplement their summer workforce.
Reyes says that ahead of the 2020 summer season, she was looking at the strongest J-1 visa program for the company yet—a staggering 300 international students ready to live, work, and play in sunny California. This year? Reyes says she’s “crossing fingers” that she’ll get 60.
Beckson says delays in visa processing combined with federal and international border restrictions are a real problem.
“Those programs are looking pretty anemic this year in terms of numbers,” she says.
The team at Knoebels in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, has been luckier than others in bringing back employees—being at 78% in regard to pre-pandemic employment numbers—but they still have some pockets that have been difficult to fill.
“We have had a nice flow of 14- and 15-year-old applicants but have been struggling to get candidates who are 16 and older in order to keep more attractions and offerings open later in the evening,” says Knoebels Human Resources Director Jon Anderson.
Sweetening the Pot
To combat hiring struggles, industry leaders are doing what they can to sweeten the pot and entice people to work at their attractions.
At Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, eligible employees can earn an extra $300 per pay period if they work more than 60 hours in that two-week period. With the incentive program running from May 17 to Sept. 19, that is a massive $2,700 in bonuses for each eligible employee.
Starting wages at Morey’s Piers were originally planned to be $12 this summer, over the $11.10 per hour minimum for New Jersey, but they were boosted to $13.50 for employees 18 and older, $13 for 16- and 17-year-olds, and $12.50 for 14- and 15-year-olds. Beyond increased wages, Morey’s is offering retention payments for anyone who works through their date of commitment, says Beckson.
Employees who are 18 and older can earn an extra $1.50 per hour, while 16- and 17-year-olds can nab an extra $1 and 14- and 15-year-olds have an additional 50 cents up for grabs.
Anderson says Knoebels has been advertising jobs for what they are—a chance to help guests create memories—while offering employees team member events, several employee discounts, a 401(k) match, and scholarship opportunities.
“What we were doing pre-pandemic looks completely different from what we are doing today out of sheer need,” says Reyes, adding that hiring and onboarding is all done virtually now. “Because we needed to keep people safe, but also we needed to get people through as quickly as possible.”
The Knoebels team has also switched to an almost all-virtual hiring and onboarding process.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which first began operation in 1907, only got the greenlight from the State of California to begin operating some of its rides in a limited capacity at the beginning of April after a yearlong closure. Normally, Reyes would’ve had summer schedules and operating calendars all coordinated in January, with the ability to ramp up seasonal hiring that far out.
Now, she’s concerned about being able to staff the days the boardwalk has promised to be open to guests. Instead of knowing summer hours at the beginning of the year, “we’re month-by-month,” says Reyes.
Anderson and Reyes both say their parks have not been able to open all rides, shops, or food and beverage outlets with reduced staffing. Beckson says Morey’s Piers’ leaders proactively modified their operations calendar before the start of the season because of lingering COVID-19 issues. Instead of opening for Easter at the beginning of April, Morey’s Piers opened on Mother’s Day, May 9, and one of the water parks set to open Mother’s Day was pushed back to June 8.
“We’re OK because we made those modifications,” she says. “If we were open to a normal schedule—I would say a 2019 schedule—we would not have had the staff to do it.”