Already Short-Handed, Island Businesses Brace For Late Summer Worker Exodus

The severe labor shortage left most Nantucket businesses short-handed all summer, but now as college-aged workers return to school with still a few busy weeks remaining in the season, it’s a double-whammy for island employers. 

Amid one of Nantucket’s busiest summers – if not the busiest – help-wanted signs adorn more downtown storefronts than not, while island businesses have been flooding social media with posts seeking additional staff for the late summer and early fall. 

At Something Natural on Cliff Road, owner Matt Fee said his wife Sheila is making sandwiches instead of keeping her knit store open to help the business keep up. 

“We’re backfilling as best we can, but we may cut our hours, we haven’t figured it out yet,” Fee said. “It’s always difficult to find people this time of year even in the best of times. I hear people on the porch (at Something Natural) complaining that restaurants are closed, and ‘two hours for dinner’, and ‘what’s going on on this island’? I explain to them, they’re all short handed. People need to take a deep breath and be more understanding. All the businesses are working their tails off.”

On Dave Street, Chicken Box co-owner Rocky Fox shared a similar sentiment. For the first time since he took over ownership of the bar with his partners Packy Norton and John Jordin back in 2000, the Chicken Box posted a help wanted sign on the building. And it stayed up all summer long. 

“As every business knows it’s been hard enough to get employees this year,” Fox said. “We’re trying our hardest just to maintain, but now all these kids who go to school in the southern states, they’re school is starting next week. We have some athletes working here and they start classes early. I just hope John Q. Public is patient with us because we’re doing the best we can.”

Both Fee and Fox also cited the lack of seasonal workers available through the H-2B and J1 visa programs this year, who typically stay on Nantucket through September and help sustain island businesses as they lose college students. The Chicken Box typically has 10 workers through the J1 visa program. This summer, they only managed to find two. Something Natural hasn’t had any J1 visa workers for the past two years. 

“The last couple of years, there’s been no H-2Bs and J1s, and that’s the backbone of the island,” Fee said. “That’s what gets a lot of businesses to the second week of September or even October.”

Bartlett’s Farm posted earlier this week that it was hiring “in all departments and have dorm HOUSING for those who sign on for the fall season.” 

Keegan Bartlett told the Current on Friday that the labor shortage was impacting the farm this summer, but was optimistic that the business would be able to maintain its operations. 

“It’s definitely an issue but not one we can’t handle,” Bartlett said. “Usually we have a number of staff staying into September and October  but most are leaving earlier to get home before school this year. A lot more college kids on staff than usual this year. We deal with this pretty much every summer but it’s a bigger issue now with how busy it is. We always manage to find a way to get the job done so I don’t think this time will be any different.”

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