The 22-room Seaside Inn on Kennebunk Beach is operating with 20 percent fewer workers than usual this year. And while the labor shortage is most visible in the hospitality sector, other industries have been impacted as well. Tammy Wells photo

Sign-on and referral bonuses, increases in wages, appreciation events like a monthly employer-paid meal, gift cards or gas cards to local businesses, and events like horseshoe tournaments are among innovations companies are using to encourage people to work for them,  and to show appreciation to those who are already do.

That is how York County rolls these days, whether you are in the hospitality industry or in other fields, like manufacturing, health care or corrections.

On Kennebunk Beach, everyone who works at Seaside Inn is pitching in to get the housekeeping done this busy summer season, including the owner.

It is the way things happen this season in the Kennebunks, Old Orchard Beach and other spots where people from Maine and across the country come to enjoy vacation.

At the Seaside Inn, a 22-room hotel overlooking Kennebunk Beach, owner Ken Mason usually employees 20 people during the busy summer season. These days there are 15, and he is doing the housekeeping himself, with help from other staff.

A sign of the times at Volk Packaging in Biddeford, where company officials are looking to hire more than a dozen workers. Tammy Wells photo

“I tried a $1,000 sign-on bonus,” said Mason. “I got applications, but no one showed up for the interview. And you can’t give a sign-on without bumping up existing (employees), so they all got bonuses to match the sign-on.”

A couple of miles away in neighboring Kennebunkport, the 109-room Nonantum Resort is in a similar employment situation, magnified by the size of the operation. There is a huge pent-up demand for people to get away and enjoy some downtime, and travelers are here in droves, said General Manager Tina Hewett Gordon.

On a recent rainy weekend, the resort hosted three weddings in addition to a full house of other guests. Usually, the hotel employs about 175 people and on a recent day, the count was 140. This season, given the amount of business, Gordon said she could use 200.

The staff is working hard, and to show appreciation, Gordon has set up an account at a local gas station to help employees buy gas, periodically hands out gift cards to staff, held an ice cream party on an exceptionally hot day and brings in a food truck once a month to provide a free staff lunch.

At Venetia’s, a 51-year-old family-owned restaurant in Old Orchard Beach, there has been an adjustment in hours and other changes, said Manager Venus Gilboy. “We don’t offer offer table service, but people can order ‘to go’ and sit down in the dining room,  and if we’re not busy, we bring their food and drinks to them,” she said.

Hours have been adjusted as well. The seasonal restaurant, which opens in June and closes around Labor Day, is open 7 a.m.to 1 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Before the staffing shortage, hours were 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, said Gilboy.

“Customers understand the situation,” said Gilboy, who was headed to the restaurant Monday evening, after working her day job. “This is the first time in 51 years  we’ve had to do this. There’s no one to employ, and it is difficult to compete because so many are in same position.”

“Most businesses in town are challenged with staffing this year,” said Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce Director Kim Howard. “Some have increased what they offer for hourly wages and even give a bonus to employees that recommend new hires who will stay on through the summer. Some businesses who have never really had to look for workers before have tried employment websites for the first time.”

At Southern Maine Health Care, Spokeswoman Allison Kenty said there are 200 vacancies spread across the campuses in Biddeford, Sanford and other county locations. The hospital offered hiring events in Kennebunk and Sanford earlier this week, she said, and noted tuition reimbursement is among the benefits offered. Kenty said Southern Maine Health Care is also recruiting in other states, with packages that include relocation benefits. Another tool — one that other industries have employed — is offering bonuses to employees who refer others to the hospital.

This Old Orchard Beach landmark has changed its hours and method of serving meals – preparing take out only – though diners may enjoy their meal inside, without table service. OOB Chamber of Commerce Director Kim Howard said many businesses in town are experiencing a worker shortage for the first time. Tammy Wells Photo

“This accounts for nearly 30 percent of our hires, and we find the quality of these hires to be exceptional,” said Kenty.

Gordon, at the Nonantum, agreed. “We incentivize our staff. We only hire good people, and good people have good friends,” she said. “There’s an attractive referral bonus for the person who comes, if they stay, and for the employee.”

At Volk Packaging in Biddeford, Communications and Public Relations Director Amy Volk said the company could use more than a dozen new workers.

She said Volk has had a similar experience as the Seaside Inn. “They’re enthusiastic, interested and I set up an interview with our human resources staff and plant manager,” said Volk, who prescreens prospective employees by phone. “They set aside an hour of their time for an interview and a tour, and then people just don’t show up. We believe they’re just checking a box for unemployment, of course we don’t know that for sure.”

Volk said the company has had a good experience hiring immigrants in the past, and that she has reached out to the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center and is awaiting a response.

She said the starting wage is about $18 an hour, up $2 from a year ago. The company hosts a monthly employee lunch and has drawings with prizes like a day off with pay and other perks.

“We’re letting our workers know we appreciate the job they do,” she said.

In Alfred, York County Sheriff William King recently hired four full-time and one reserve corrections officer at York County Jail and said the new union contract is attractive. New hires undergo a seven-week paid training sanctioned by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, onsite. King said the contract offers $18.30 an hour base pay, plus $3 automatic premium — a total of $21.30 an hour. Shift differentials increase the rate. Someone working a midnight to 8 a.m. shift including weekends would earn $26.30 an hour, he pointed out, or $24.30 for the same shift without weekends. He said there are about 44 vacancies, and some inmates are housed at Cumberland County Jail due to the staffing shortage, which has been ongoing for the past few years.

To encourage people to rejoin the workforce, the  state recently expanded its federally-funded  Back to Work program. The $1,500 hiring bonus was originally scheduled to decrease to $1,000 at the beginning of July. Now, it will be available for the duration of the program, which ends July 25, according to a July 1 Portland Press Herald story. Part-time employees working at least 20 hours a week and not collecting unemployment can now receive a $750 bonus payment. As of July 1, employers had requested a bonus for about 300 workers, according to the story. The Maine Department of Labor’s May figures showed 31,400 people statewide were collecting unemployment.

“Every very business is trying everything they possible can,” to cope with the worker shortage and with supply chain issues that have delayed consumer and other goods, said Maine Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors. He said some hotels may have to limit the number of rooms they rent, or restaurants reduce the number of available tables in the absence of enough workers. He pointed out there are fewer foreign workers this year, and in a two-worker household during the height of the pandemic, when schools were mostly remote, often one parent had to stay home. He spoke of  another case, where  a bartender was working so many hours, he could not continue.

“We are very fortunate that we’ve come through this (pandemic) and the things we used to take for granted we don’t take for granted anymore,” said Connors. “We’re not totally out of it, but we can see the progress being made.”

Like some others, he said he has seen some unfortunate behavior, particularly in the hospitality industry and for those selling consumer goods that may be scarce because of supply issues.

“We’ve also witnessed some impatience and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “There’s not a lack of trying.”

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