Pedestrians make their way through the Old Port Monday. Hotels and restaurant reservations across Maine are up, but the number of workers at hospitality and tourism-related businesses remain down due to the pandemic. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The city council is scheduled to remove Portland’s pandemic emergency order July 19. Now, with vaccination rates up and positive cases down, tourists are flocking to Portland and other popular Maine locations again.

But many in the hospitality industry say they are lacking the workers needed to operate at pre-pandemic levels.

“We are hearing conversations from our board members, our members and just people in the hospitality community is bookings in hotels and restaurants are very strong,” said Matt Lewis, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine. “It’s too early to say this will be a record-breaking year for the state, but I know there will be hotels, resorts and restaurants that will say they will have their best year ever, which is good news coming off a pandemic.”

There may not be enough people to serve seasonal visitors this year, however. Many hotel and restaurant workers whose jobs were eliminated or furloughed last year have found other employment. The bigger issue, Lewis said, is many of the thousands of international workers that come to the state to work for the summer on work visas are not coming due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

HospitalityMaine Director of Government Affairs Greg Dugal said Maine typically gets between 2,000 and 2,500 H-2B work visas and another 5,000 J-1 student travel and culture visas. International workers, he said, make up approximately 10% of the number of people who work in the hospitality industry. This year, he expects only half the number of H-2B workers and a third or so of the J-1 workers.

Lewis said without these workers, businesses are “making do with a smaller staff,” which in some cases could mean reduced front desk or evening hours.

Lynn Tillotson, president and CEO of Visit Portland, said while some businesses are fully staffed, many others are “are functioning with a large percentage of their normal positions going unfilled.”

This is the case at Portland Harbor Hotel on Free Street. Michael Strejcek, general manager of Colwen Hotels, said it is operating with half the employees it normally does.

“It is too late for this summer season,” he said of increasing his workforce, “but we are hopeful for next year.”

Cary Tyson, executive director of Portland Downtown, a nonprofit organization that helps to promote a safe and vibrant downtown, said the workforce shortage has had an impact on how long and when restaurants can remain open.

“Some restaurants in particular are focusing on days that tend to have the highest traffic (Thursday – Sunday), while some may only be open for dinner versus having both lunch and dinner options,” he said.

Portland Downtown, he said, is trying to help businesses get the workers they need, and in June teamed up with Portland Buy Local, Collective Commitments, Heart at Work Associates and Local Economy Payroll to create the Southern Maine Jobs Collaborative and launch mainejobs.theboomerinstitute.com to match Mainers 50 and older with businesses looking to meet the demands of the 2021 summer season.

Last month, Gov. Janet Mills announced the launch of “Back To Work”, a program to help unemployed residents rejoin the workforce by providing money for employers to offer one-time bonuses of up to $1,500 to new employees through July 25.

“Everywhere I go, I see ‘Now Hiring’ signs at retailers of all sizes,” Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine said in a statement announcing the program. “There are millions of people ready to visit Maine this summer and we need our retail, tourism and hospitality businesses ready to deliver the world-class customer service that we are known for. This program will be a huge help.” 

Such efforts could aid restaurants, hotels and businesses in recruiting workers, but Lewis said “if there is not a dramatic change to the visa workers program, we will be facing a similar situation and conversation at this same point next year.”

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