Summer visitors to Maine eateries, inns and other seasonal attractions are likely to notice that service is slower, hours of operation are more limited and employees appear tired and stressed at some establishments.

That’s because the state’s labor shortage has become so acute that industry leaders say it now affects virtually every business and organization, especially those that staff up for the summer tourism season.

“In my mind, we’ve reached the tipping point … where our ability to provide the kind of service that Maine is known for drops, or we have to close places and cut back on hours and can’t serve the demand,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, a trade group for hotels and restaurants.

It’s already happening in some cases. One Portland-area restaurant shut down in June because it couldn’t maintain a reliable staff, and others have been forced to reduce hours or simplify their menus. Restaurant owners say they’ve had no choice but to hire inexperienced or unreliable workers, sometimes with disastrous results.

And it’s not just restaurants. Other organizations throughout Maine that cater to tourists have been forced to shut down locations, cut services or push their limited workforce to the point of exhaustion because of the labor shortage.

Business leaders say a lack of qualified job applicants is the No. 1 problem right now for nearly every company and organization in Maine. It is a multifaceted crisis that touches on issues including the state’s aging population, low unemployment, lack of affordable housing and limited access to migrant labor.

Maine’s seasonal labor crunch is only expected to worsen unless direct action is taken on several fronts to address the problem, they said, adding that doing nothing would eventually hurt the state’s entire economy.

“We would suffer severely,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got a lot of issues that cannot be ignored or denied, that if we aren’t really vigilant and take seriously the need to grow our workforce, we’re going to be in trouble.”

CRISIS IN FOODIE LAND

While Portland-area restaurantgoers are enjoying their lobster, clams and other local delicacies in the front of the house, managers in the back of the house are indulging in cannibalism.

Competition has gotten so fierce for the city’s limited pool of skilled culinary professionals that even well-established, upscale eateries such as Five Fifty-Five on Congress Street in downtown Portland can no longer fend off poachers coming after their kitchen staff.

“We were doing pretty good, and then just recently we lost some people to competitors, so we’re struggling right now,” proprietor Michelle Corry said. “It’s just tricky. It’s driving the hourly wages way up to where it’s like an impossibility.”

When a restaurant already pays its kitchen workers well above minimum wage and offers paid vacation, health insurance and 401(k) retirement plans as Five Fifty-Five does, there isn’t much room to negotiate, so Corry and her husband, Steve Corry, are trying to make do with the people they have.

That includes simplifying the menu and bringing in inexperienced workers earlier in the day to do prep work, Michelle Corry said. There is no technology solution to the problem of staffing in a restaurant that prides itself on a high-touch, high-quality dining experience.

“We’re at a point where you have to say it’s not going to get better,” she said. “We have to assume that we’re not going to be fully staffed.”

Fifteen miles north in Freeport, restaurateur Vincent “Vinny” Migliaccio decided to throw in the towel in June on his nearly 19-year-old wine bistro, appropriately named Conundrum, on U.S. Route 1.

It’s hard to say whether the last straw was the fact that Migliaccio couldn’t get a sufficient number of staff to show up reliably and do their jobs, or the time in February when a mentally unstable dishwasher tried to kill him in front of the customers.

“(He) pulled a gun out, had a Bowie knife, I had to tackle him in the kitchen, and I literally fought him out into the restaurant and restrained him behind the bar and waited for seven minutes for the police to arrive and take him into custody,” said Migliaccio, who still operates an adjacent restaurant called El Jefe Taco Bar. “It’s a very different world now where, because of the way the market is, you’re forced to bring people in that you can’t really vet.”

Old Orchard Beach lifeguard Matthew York watches over the beach from the tower in Old Orchard Beach last month. Finding lifeguards has been a struggle for many beach and swimming areas in Maine this summer, with some reducing hours that lifeguards are on duty. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Frequent patrons of Portland-area restaurants say there has been a noticeable change in the atmosphere and level of service at many of their favorite eateries. Everything takes longer, they say, and workers are often running around with pained looks on their faces.

The staffing shortage isn’t limited to Portland or even Maine, but it hits especially hard in a city that has become famous for offering one of the best dining experiences in the country.

“We have a fair amount of restaurants and hotels that we finance, and they’re our customers,” said Bob Montgomery-Rice, president and CEO of Bangor Savings Bank. “If you go into a restaurant in the Old Port and you feel like, aw man, this waitress or waiter is not getting to you, it’s because there’s probably one or two less than they needed to have. It’s not that the business is being cheap and doesn’t want to hire them – they can’t.”

SUMMER SCRAMBLE

No industry in Maine employs more workers than tourism, and no season is more important to Maine tourism than summer.

There were roughly 37 million tourist visits to the state in 2018, and those visitors spent a total of about $6.2 billion, according to an annual visitation survey commissioned by the Maine Office of Tourism. Maine’s tourism economy supports about 109,500 jobs, roughly one out of every six jobs in the state.

Despite the industry’s success – and in part because of it – some seasonal tourism-related organizations in Maine are scaling back their operations or simply not opening at all for the summer, said Hewins, the HospitalityMaine chief executive. The sole reason is a lack of workers.

“Workforce is the No. 1 issue of every single restaurant and hotel in Maine,” he said.

On June 1, Maine Huts and Trails announced that it would close half of its overnight lodges this summer and fall as it concentrates on improving trails and equipment with a reduced workforce.

The nonprofit, which operates lodges for hikers along an 80-mile trail network in Franklin and Somerset counties, said it could not find enough workers to operate the lodges while making the needed improvements.

On Maine’s most popular tourist beaches, municipal and state officials have been unable to meet their staffing needs for lifeguards due to the worsening labor crunch.

Even the state’s most prominent outdoor destination, Acadia National Park, has been affected by the worker shortage, causing the park to postpone implementation of a planned reservation system for visitors until 2021.

Tourists wait for the sun to rise on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in 2017. The worker shortage in Maine has even affected the state’s most prominent outdoor destination. The park has postpone implementation of a planned reservation system for visitors until 2021 because it has not been able to hire enough staff this season. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff file photo

Acadia officials said they were unable to fill all of the park’s seasonal positions this year, in part because of a late start for recruiting caused by the 35-day federal government shutdown in December and January. Acadia typically hires 120 to 150 employees for the busy summer season.

Hewins said the labor shortage may be most noticeable among tourism-related businesses in the summer, but the underlying problems affect all industries and could hurt the state’s economy year-round.

“I always refer to tourism as kind of the tip of the spear of economic development, because it’s the thing that introduces people to Maine, perhaps to relocate here, perhaps to move a company here or work here,” he said. “So if we have a problem handling that, it’s going to impact beyond just hospitality.”

A COMPLEX PROBLEM

With unemployment hovering around 3 percent, nearly every business in Maine has struggled to fill needed positions, said Connors, the state chamber president.

In a recent survey of about 1,200 Maine businesses, he said, three of the top five problems cited by respondents were workforce-related. The problem isn’t limited to any one industry or region of the state, according to Connors.

“Pretty much everywhere, they’re grappling with this issue,” he said.

One problem that is more specific to the tourism industry has been exacerbated by recent uncertainty in a foreign worker program used extensively in the state.

In recent years, some Maine resorts and hotels have been forced to cut back hours, shut down blocks of rooms and close early for the season because not enough temporary foreign worker visas, known as H-2B and J-1 visas, were available to make up for the paucity of local workers.

Hewins said some politicians have confused the foreign worker issue by conflating it with illegal immigration or falsely claiming that temporary foreign workers are dragging down wages or taking jobs away from locals.

“It’s wrapped up in the immigration stalemate in Washington, even though this is not immigration,” he said. “These are temporary workers – they want to go home.”

Another big hurdle is the state’s lack of affordable housing, especially in high-demand areas such as southern and coastal Maine. Migliaccio, the Freeport restaurant owner, said he has spoken to foreign temporary workers who were clearly being exploited by unscrupulous landlords in Maine because housing options are so scarce.

“I was talking to a couple of them down in Portland … and I asked them what they did (for housing),” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, they take $120 or $130 out of our check every week.’ I was like, ‘Oh, that’s not bad,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but we have seven people in a small apartment and we have one bathroom to share.’ … I was like, ‘Wait a second – so you guys are paying $4,000 a month, roughly, to share a small apartment with one bathroom?’ ”

There are efforts underway to sort out some of the state’s workforce problems, but business leaders said it will take a combination of different approaches to make any lasting progress.

Those include trade partnerships with high schools, technical schools and colleges; better marketing and recruiting efforts by the hospitality industry; and tapping deeper into segments of the labor pool that are often ignored, such as young people, retirees, immigrants and veterans.

For example, the Maine Legislature passed a law this past session that allocates funds to help immigrants get credentials so they have an easier time integrating into Maine’s workforce.

But Hewins said a lot more needs to be done.

“This issue’s not going away,” he said. “We’re going to lose businesses, like people who will just give up and say it’s not worth it.”


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