Hilton Head Island is grappling with an unprecedented shortage of hospitality workers.
Employers on the island say it is fast reaching crisis level and that hiring quality people is harder than it has ever been. Pinpointing the exact size of the shortage is difficult because no one is tracking it, but worries are mounting. A worsening shortage could have long-term ramifications for the town’s tourism-based economy, reliant upon roughly 8,400 workers who landscape grounds, cook and serve restaurant meals, clean rental houses and hotels and perform the dozens of other jobs that serve the town’s more than 2.6 million annual visitors.
Left unchecked, the shortage may threaten both the long-term quality of life for island residents and Hilton Head’s reputation as a premier tourist destination. Customers may soon begin to notice that businesses are struggling to maintain quality service without the staff to support it.
“Today, what’s happening behind the scenes is those (Hilton Head) employers are scrambling to find ways to get those positions filled,” said Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett. “And at some point, it could be that they just aren’t able to scramble anymore.”
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All signs point to the shortage growing worse as rent on the island increases and new employment opportunities spring up in both Bluffton and Jasper County, creating competition for both local workers and those who make hours-long commutes.
Business owners feeling the shortage
While the worker shortage started to emerge about 12 years ago, according to employers and developers, it is now affecting operations.
Aunt Chilada’s Easy Street Cafe on Pope Avenue shuttered its main, upstairs dining room from May to mid-June because it was short servers and hosts. Zaxby’s new south end location opened one week late in April because of a worker shortage. And Reilley’s Bar and Grill on Greenwood Drive has been searching for a second chef for more than a year.
The resorts and hotels also say they’re more challenged than ever to fill jobs.
The Sonesta Resort delayed the opening of its pool bar for several weeks this spring because it lacked staff to operate it. The Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort was short 50 employees, 15 percent of its staff, in June, even after flying 90 international workers to Hilton Head for the season. Sea Pines Resort too has struggled to fill all of its jobs after rebuilding several facilities, including the Beach Club and Plantation Club. And an anticipated doubling of the number of rooms at The Inn & Club at Harbour Town mean even more hospitality workers will soon be needed.
Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort and the Holiday Inn Express also confirmed they're short more workers than in past years. Other hospitality companies, including Marriott Vacation Clubs and The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa, declined to talk about their specific shortages this year, but said filling jobs is a challenge every summer.
“It's certainly not ideal and requires a lot more work than it should,” said Tim Freisen, general manager of The Westin. At the start of the season, his resort sometimes closes its seasonal restaurants two days a week for lack of workers.
And dozens of island restaurants, ranging from fast food eateries to tourist hotspots, are also feeling the shortage.
"When you're hiring, it's usually out of a big barrel of choices,” said Troy Dempsey, general manager of Hilton Head’s Popeyes Chicken, which has consistently struggled to stay fully staffed since opening in September. “On Hilton Head, it’s more like a small bucket.”
Some employers admit that they are having to lower standards to fill jobs.
"It's become, ‘One man's trash is another man's treasure,’” says Steve Carb, president of Hilton Head’s largest employer, SERG restaurant group, which operates six Hilton Head restaurants. “Forget about getting qualified employees. Sometimes, you just need a warm body.”
Even when establishments find enough workers, many still struggle. For example, between 50 and 75 percent of Zaxby’s new hires leave in a matter of days, according to a manager. Park Plaza Cinema off Greenwood Drive, which has been looking for two more employees since May, has been left in the lurch several times when other new employees quit without notice, the owner recently said. And Skillet’s Restaurant in Coligny Plaza, which keeps a “Help Wanted” sign up year round, is now filling kitchen jobs that once required years of experience with staff who have none.
Ten years ago, a worker who consistently failed to show up for work was blacklisted and would not be rehired, said Brendan Reilley, whose family owns eight establishments under the Coastal Restaurants And Bars umbrella. Now, workers fired for minor offenses are usually shuffled from one CRAB restaurant to another.
“We had a no-hire list, basically,” Reilley said. “I don’t think we have a no-hire list anymore.”
Meanwhile, the historic ways that some Hilton Head employers have brought in workers to fill shortages — including a student visa program and a public busing system — are in need of improvements, say activists.
▪ Some workers stand in the aisles of Palmetto Breeze buses during their hours-long commutes to Hilton Head jobs because there aren’t enough seats. And because of a limited number of routes, missing the bus means missing a full day of work, hurting both workers and employers. A better transportation system could mean more workers coming to the island.
▪ Some foreign-student workers say they are being brought to the island under false pretenses. More accountability could increase the likelihood that students get the experience they were promised and that more students will want to come to Hilton Head.
“It’s not hard to find guest workers that feel duped, feel outraged that they were promised something that they don’t get,” said Meredith Stewart, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that specializes in civil rights and public interest litigation. “They feel like cheap labor.”
“If people are feeling like they are taken advantage of for cheap labor, what does that say about us?”
The new competitor: Bluffton
The largest reason for the island’s worker shortage is the growth of its neighbor, Bluffton.
“Frankly the growth of Bluffton has been incredible,” said Jay Wiendl, general manager of The Sonesta Resort on Hilton Head. “And the reality is that it is absolutely cutting into who we’re able to hire.”
For decades, thousands of workers from around Beaufort County — and even neighboring Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties — were willing to commute an hour-plus for tourism work on the island.
Then, Bluffton began to grow. It has drastically increased its population through annexation and development in the past two decades. The once-sleepy town of about 1,275 residents is now home to nearly 17,000, according to 2015 census data, and even that number likely is far lower than today’s actual count.
That growth has brought a large offering of jobs in restaurants, retail stores and entertainment businesses. Hospitality jobs in greater Bluffton have skyrocketed from 1,416 in 2002 to 4,069 in 2014, according to census data.
Commuting to Bluffton cuts roughly half an hour off of commuters’ routes.
And unlike Hilton Head, workers can more easily put down roots in Bluffton, where homes cost half as much. The town’s median home value was about $203,000 in 2014, according to census data, compared to about $447,000 on Hilton Head.
Workers are catching on. Since 2014, 1,277 new homes have been approved in Bluffton and another 1,635 in Jasper County and northern Beaufort County, compared to just 101 on Hilton Head, according to the Lowcountry Council of Governments.
Now with a planned Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Sam’s Club already under construction at the intersection of U.S. 278 and S.C. 46, there will only be more Bluffton jobs to fill.
Meanwhile, the high-end Montage Palmetto Bluff hotel will double its staff this year from about 350 to 600 employees for a new $100 million hotel expansion opening this September.
“People are realizing: ‘Why cross the bridge when I can just walk to work in Bluffton?’ ” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “We’re the gateway, closer to everywhere on the mainland. It makes sense that people are going to want to work and live here.”
The next competitor: Jasper County
While Bluffton is already taking a bite out of Hilton Head’s hospitality workforce, Jasper County is the giant waiting around the corner.
Once considered a pipe dream, the Jasper Ocean Terminal now looms as the single largest economic development in the state, poised to create 900,000 new jobs in South Carolina and Georgia by 2040.
While the finished port is two decades away, the creation of new jobs is not. Roads must be widened, railroad lines must be extended and other work must soon be done to make the Hardeeville site construction-ready by 2020.
That makes the port an immediate threat to Hilton Head Island’s workforce.
And once the port opens, workers in Jasper, Colleton and Hampton counties will find high-paying jobs in transportation, construction, supply-chain management and more in their own backyards, or at least much closer than Hilton Head.
Restaurant, hotel and other hospitality jobs are anticipated to follow.
There are other signs of growth in Jasper County too. Developers broke ground on RiverPort in 2014, a 5,000-acre business park, and commercial and mixed-use village in Hardeeville. The project is expected to attract more than $875 million in investments and create as many as 10,500 new jobs.
"We are so close to the day when our best and brightest young people can stay right at home and have jobs and opportunities,” then-mayor Bronco Bostick said at the park’s grand opening.
That enthusiasm has only grown in the past couple of years since, said Jasper County Council member Barbara Clark.
“Some people travel two hours coming and two hours going to Hilton Head” for work, she said. “And hopefully the port will give them some jobs where they will be able to be home with their children and family at a reasonable hour in the day.”
“Things are going to begin to happen in Jasper County. That’s a known fact,” she added.
It’s not all bad news. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who has led efforts to make the port a reality, said it will have a positive regional impact, bringing jobs and growth to all parts of the region, including Hilton Head.
“It’s not like there’s a finite pool of people Hilton Head and Jasper County will be fighting for,” he said. “People will respond to where the job opportunities are ... It’s a rising tide that’s going to lift all boats here.”
Bennett, Hilton Head’s mayor, is less sure, saying Jasper County jobs will be more attractive to many Lowcountry workers since the commute will be shorter than to Hilton Head.
“I see that as a potentially huge negative impact on our quality of life,” he said.
Leon Wright, a 58-year-old Ridgeland native, says he would try training for a job at the port if he were younger. After years of working on Hilton Head, he just took a part-time maintenance job at Tanger Outlet Center in Bluffton, hitchhiking both ways because he can't afford to replace his old car.
He doesn’t see the next generation of Jasper County workers making the same sacrifices.
“(Employers) are going to find out later they're hurting themselves,” Wright said. “Because once they start building up Jasper County, we're staying right there. Or, they’re going to have to pay a hell of a lot more money.”
No place to live
One way Hilton Head could retain workers is to encourage construction of housing that workers can afford.
But its housing trend is going in the opposite direction — fewer and fewer housing options are available for employees.
Consider a couple of examples from this year alone:
▪ About 40 working-poor families were forced to vacate the Chimney Cove neighborhood just outside Palmetto Dunes by the neighborhood’s new owners.
▪ Holy Family Catholic Church on Pope Avenue has tried to relocate at least six families who lost their affordable, longtime homes on Hilton Head and couldn’t find anywhere else to go.
The families lack transportation to commute from off the island, and are especially wary of moving their kids into Jasper County’s failing schools, says Nora Bess, who’s in charge of the church’s Hispanic ministries.
“It’s frightening because they don’t know where to go,” said Bess, whose families are looking for apartments under $1,000 per month and can afford no more than $1,200. “I don’t have a magic ball ... I don’t have the money to buy out their apartments and say, ‘Hey, you guys can live here.’ But if you get rid of the working poor, who’s going to do the restaurants? Who’s going to clean? Who’s going to do the yard work?’”
Census data confirms the trend of workers moving off of the island. The number of workers who both live and work on Hilton Head has dropped by more than a third, plummeting from 11,525, to 7,444 from 2002 to 2014, according to census data.
In Rollers Trailer Park on Marshland Road — one of about a dozen affordable mobile home parks and apartment complexes on the island — most residents say they expect to leave within a few years, either because they’re forced out for a new development or priced out by rent.
The property includes views of the Broad Creek and public dock, making it a desirable location that is unlikely to remain affordable housing.
Maria Salazar, a 50-year-old house cleaner who has lived in the community for about eight years, said she’s seen no improvements to the neighborhood even though her monthly rent increased in May by $350 to $500. Her trailer still has holes in the floors and her gravel driveway still gets giant potholes in the rain.
“We don’t want to start again,” Salazar said. “But we’re going to move if they keep increasing the money because it’s not worth it to live here.”