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Help Wanted: An airbrush artist to save the summer

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Wildwood, N.J. -- David Zarfati needed to hire an airbrush artist. He had been looking for weeks. Taking out ads. Hitting up old contacts. He even flew down to Florida in an attempt to lure back one former worker especially skilled with the airbrush gun. No luck.

Now, the summer crush was about to begin. Finding help of any kind felt impossible.

Zarfati was short-staffed at all five of his storefronts along the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore. He had already turned to his family and friends for help. They could manage the stores, sell the T-shirts and bathing suits.

But airbrushing -- that was an art. The lettering had to be perfect. Sketches had to be realistic. Vacationers saw magic -- the feeling of a summertime trip to the beach -- in the personalized images. They would pay up to $100 for an airbrushed T-shirt. And a good airbrush artist could make $30,000 in a single summer.

But if Zarfati did not find someone soon, there was little point to even opening one of his stores, Karma.

"The store fails this summer without an airbrush artist," Zarfati, 47, said.

Beach towns and vacation spots across the country are struggling to hire enough workers, part of a nationwide labor shortage hitting fast-food joints, restaurants and manufacturing plants. Businesses that suffered last year when the pandemic kept customers away -- and many of them laid off employees -- are discovering that it is the workers who are hard to find now.

The problem is critical for summer hotspots like Wildwood. What happens here during the 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day can make or break the entire year.

"It's sad to survive the pandemic, to make it this far and not have enough people to work," said Denise Beckson, vice president of human resources at Morey's Piers and Beachfront Water Parks in Wildwood, which is still looking to fill hundreds of open positions for its carnival games, roller coasters and Ferris wheel.

No one can agree where all these workers are hiding out -- or how to find them. Some blame lingering fears of covid-19. Others point to beefed-up unemployment benefits, which give an extra $300 a week through September. At least 22 states have announced plans to cut off the additional aid to spur a return to the labor pool. New Jersey is not one of them.

One overlooked part of the story is the challenges posed by the sudden need for workers, said Oliver Cooke, an economist at Stockton University, who writes the South Jersey Economic Review. The entire economy ground to a halt and then exploded into action almost at once this spring, leading to intense competition for workers, he said.

It is also difficult to tease out what is happening in places driven by seasonal hiring, such as Cape May County, home to Wildwood. The unemployment rate here always races up and down like a heart-rate monitor as it tracks summer vacations. The swings were just more dramatic last year. The local rate hit 27.9% in April 2020 -- the worst in three decades -- and fell to 7.3% by October. It stood at 12.5% in March, on par with prior years, according to the most recent state-level data available.

Vacation destinations face an additional problem: The disappearance of seasonal foreign workers -- students who travel to the United States to work summer jobs on temporary visas in resort towns from Cape Cod to the Wisconsin Dells. Before the pandemic, about 100,000 of these workers would come to the United States. About 5,000 foreign student workers would typically find jobs along the Jersey Shore.

A ban on foreign worker programs imposed by former president Donald Trump was allowed to expire in March by President Joe Biden. But foreign workers still face pandemic travel restrictions and visa backlogs.

'Downright impossible'

In a normal year, Morey's would fill a third of its 1,500-person summer workforce with foreign students.

This year, as the summer season kicks off, the company had just 18 students who made it to Wildwood -- with another 60 expected at some point.

"It's just downright impossible," Beckson said.

No one in Wildwood seemed to have enough help. Businesses were getting desperate and creative. Raising wages. Dangling bonuses. Bussing in workers from neighboring counties. Sharing workers with competitors. Cutting back hours. Turning to family and friends.

"Help Wanted" signs were everywhere. The main highway into town was dotted with billboards from Morey's offering $15 an hour -- well above the state's $11.10 seasonal worker minimum wage. A sign outside the Douglass Candies store on the boardwalk advertised $13 an hour, plus a $150 signing bonus and $50 for getting vaccinated.

"I think it's going to be a banner year. I just need to find more workers," said Jason Dugan, co-owner of the popular candy store.

Two handwritten signs in the windows of the Pink Cadillac Diner said they were looking for "cooks, dishwashers, prep." In big letters, the sign read, "BONUS end of season."

"How many people do you think came in?" restaurant owner Dimitris Baralos said, sitting in a booth on a recent morning.

He did not wait for a reply.

"No one."

Baralos said he had already raised prices -- 50 cents here, $1 there. He'd ordered new laminated menus. The kid's breakfast -- two eggs, pancakes or French toast with meat -- was now $7.99, a dollar more than last summer.

He attributed the lack of workers to unemployment benefits. A worker in New Jersey could receive up to $1,000 a week with the $300 federal bonus, according to state data. Baralos said he had some potential workers ask about being paid under the table so they could keep getting unemployment. He said he declined.

He worried if he could afford to hire all the staff he needs.

"In the end, does it work for us to pay them so much?" he said.

Michael Arena, a 47-year-old restaurant cook, said people have tried to hire him away. His friend, Ed Sprigman, 58, said he got a $2 raise to $20 an hour to stay at his maintenance job at a condo complex. Both men thought the state's high unemployment benefit played some role in the lack of workers.

"It's a mystery. I think people just don't care about working," Sprigman said.

He might have been tempted to join them, Sprigman said, but his PIN code for logging into his state unemployment account did not work.

Vacation hordes

Wildwood is a place that lies in wait for the summer. It sits on a barrier island at the very southern tip of New Jersey. The ocean is the draw. Its population explodes from about 5,000 to 250,000 when the vacation hordes descend.

It is also a place frozen in time, with a very New Jersey vibe. It lacks the rustic refinement of the Outer Banks or the overbuilt energy of Myrtle Beach. Wildwood's motels are mostly low-slung and open-aired, harking back to the '50s and '60s when they were built. The town's water tower is painted to resemble a beach ball. The beach is so wide the ocean can feel very far away. Most of the action is found on the wide boardwalk, its wood planks weathered like a beachcomber's skin.

Pizza is sold by the slice. Oreos and pickles come fried. The seagulls are crafty. One store offers the chance to shoot costumed workers with a paintball gun. Visitors can also play Skee-Ball and carnival games that offer prizes such as a stuffed baby Yoda.

For nearly a century, Wildwood has hosted a national marbles tournament at what is billed as Ringer Stadium, which is really 10 painted concrete pads in the sand.

And every day at 11 a.m., the boardwalk loudspeakers play the national anthem and God Bless America. That is followed by Bobby Rydell's 1963 hit "Wildwood Days," which includes the line, "All I think about after school is out is / Heading down to the shore to have a ball once more."

Zarfati can see the Morey's Ferris wheel from his stores. They are grouped a few blocks apart along a busy stretch of boardwalk. He opened his first one in 1997. He slowly added more.

Today, he has The Rock, Love Rock, Oxygen, Gemini and Karma. The stores offer permanent ink tattoos and temporary henna tattoos, along with piercings and the usual assortment of beach goods. A couple years ago, he bought out a competitor and acquired his first store dedicated to airbrush art.

All of it -- the tattoos, the henna, the piercings and airbrush art -- shared a common allure for beach visitors, Zarfati said.

"Really, what they're buying is a memory," he said.

Grandmothers get matching tattoos with their grandsons. Mothers and daughters come in for henna tattoos. Friends get matching bellybutton piercings. And new couples want T-shirts with both of their names painted on them.

"It creates a bond," he said. "And that what brings them back to Wildwood."

Now, Zarfati was trying to stitch together a crew to make those memories. He had his wife, Vivian, running one store and his children -- ranging from 15 to 24 years old -- stationed at the others.

"My model for this season -- I told this to my daughter -- is trust," he said. "Trust that everything is going to be OK. That we're going to be able to find people to work for us."

So he found one tattoo artist -- an old friend's sister's fiance.

Another friend who lived in Colorado agreed to come out and work as another tattoo artist. Zarfati was letting him sleep in an apartment above one of his stores.

His children were training to do piercings and henna tattoos. A friend of one of his sons, Emmanuel Pelzer, was learning, too. He could do some simple tribal designs and a turtle piece.

"I've gotten better," Pelzer, 22, said.

An airbrush artist was the big missing piece.

The woman Zarfati hired last summer was good. But she and her boyfriend had moved to Florida during the offseason. They were supposed to return to Wildwood on May 1, he said. They never showed. A week later, they said they had changed their minds. Desperate, Zarfati flew down to Florida and convinced them to come with him. They drove north together. But they had a falling out on the side of a highway near Philadelphia, he said. They went their separate ways.

The job of an airbrush painter is part graffiti artist and part sketch artist. T-shirts are tricky canvases. So are ball caps and license plates, two other popular items. It is not a job that just anyone can do.

Zarfati took out ads online. He posted on Facebook about his opening. The job paid $1,000 to $1,500 a week, he wrote in his post. But a good artist could easily double that.

He got one lead. He met the man. He liked him.

"He had good energy," Zarfati said. "But he told me he can't work Saturdays."

That is like not being able to play NFL football on Sundays.

Saturdays are the boardwalk's prime time. An airbrush artist can make $2,000 in sales that day, compared to $800 any other day.

Zarfati kept looking. Then he heard from a man he used to work with more than two decades ago. He was a bit older, in his 60s. He lived in Pennsylvania but could come out to the beach and live in his RV. They talked money. The worker could have struck almost any deal he wanted. He had the leverage. The artist last summer took a flat $30,000 fee, Zarfati said. The old man asked for 50% of the fee for the airbrush art. Zarafati would get the other 50% and money for the T-shirts.

Zarfati figures he will end up paying his new artist more than last summer.

As a businessman, he knew the downsides to both arrangements. A flat fee meant the airbrush artist did not have an incentive to do more work. But an artist working on commission would want to maximize their time in the shop, so they might not want to come in when it was not busy.

But the old man offered another selling point: He agreed to set up a second easel so he could teach Zarfati and one of his sons how to use the airbrush gun. He would show them how to write in bubble letters, script and something called "scratch." He would show them how to paint palm trees, hearts and dogs -- some of the most popular requests.

"The biggest trick is the handwriting. A good airbrusher has great handwriting," Zarfati said. "You can use stencils for the other stuff."

Recently, Zarfati got a phone call. His airbrusher had arrived in Wildwood. He was ready to work -- just in time for the start of the summer season.

 

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