Delaware summer job picture impacted by COVID-19

An employee stands behind the counter at Northeast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View. (Submitted photo)

As a recent college graduate, Justin Jones was excited to start his dream job in March.

The Smyrna native was hired by ESPN as statistical analyst. His first day on the job was scheduled to be March 20.

Like most of the world, Mr. Jones’ plans were thrown off course due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I left Virginia to return back home to Delaware for a week before starting my job in Connecticut,” Mr. Jones said. “Well as soon as I pulled into my driveway, I got a call from my boss saying I shouldn’t move up there due to the virus.”

His start date at ESPN was pushed back to August. He then had to scramble to find a job for the summer, eventually getting hired at the Amazon Warehouse in Middletown.

Mr. Jones is just one of high school- to college-aged workers who had their summer job plans changed due to the pandemic,

Some have not been as lucky. According to a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the teen unemployment rate was 29.9% at the end of May and was as high as 31.9% in April.

In Delaware, some of the usual summer jobs are unavailable especially at the beach as amusement parks like Funland and Jungle Jims are closed until at least the end of June.

One industry which is hiring, especially at the beach, is the restaurant sector.

Matt Patton, the director of operations for SoDel Concepts, which owns 12 restaurants along the Sussex County beaches, said SoDel Concepts was able to hire students from Cape Henlopen High and local colleges, which has helped its restaurants hit the ground running as the beaches reopened two weeks ago.

“We already have a great staff that’s with us year-round,” Mr. Patton said. “But we get the bump of what we need for the summer from those students.”

“We’ve been really lucky to have a lot of our summer employees back from last year,” Mr. Patton added. “We got a great group of Cape students, combined with a great group of students from local colleges. We’ve been lucky that we get to pick the cream of the crop. Our sales numbers have started out really good, better than last year at this time.”

Businesses at the beach will be turning to local workers this summer more than a typical year.

That’s due to the the International Student Outreach Program announcing in late May it would be canceling its 2020 program. It is run through the J-1 visa program as international students come to the United States on a 60-day work visa, which allows them an extra 30 days of residency after the 60 days are up.

The U.S. State Department put a 60-day hold on new visas in March when COVID-19 first started shutdowns in the United States. U.S. embassies and consulates suspended all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa services on March 20.

Due to the delay, Mr. Patton said the J-1 workers SoDel Concepts hired with the intent of starting in June won’t be able to make it.

SoDel Concepts has hired workers through the J-1 program for the last five years. It still has some J-1 workers left over from the spring who could not leave to their home country during the shutdown.

Those workers have received employment for the summer.

“They’ve been in the country for a while,” Mr. Patton said. “It was difficult for them to go home, but luckily they were able to extend their stays here. So we still have a handful of J-1 workers, just not as many as last summer.”

When restaurants were only serving takeout and delivery during the state’s shutdown, SoDel Concepts was still training its summer workers online.

“We started bringing people back I think a lot earlier than a lot of other places,” Mr. Patton said. “We never stopped training. Our training director Meghan King transitioned everything online so we really didn’t miss a beat. When people come to work for us, it’s not just a summer job. We want to make sure they’ll learn some things that will help them with their career, whether that’s in the restaurant business or not.”

“We’re always hiring,” Mr. Patton added. “We’re always looking for good talent. That hasn’t stopped because of COVID.”

Staff writer Tim Mastro can be reached at tmastro@newszap.com or 741-8224.