Randy’s Wooster St. Pizza opened in Naples last year just a few months before the pandemic hit Maine. It managed to continue operating throughout the pandemic, but once restrictions eased and business picked up, it has been struggling to find enough employees.

“We have our core crew, but we are having trouble finding seasonal employees,” co-owner Dena Price said. “We were hoping to open seven days a week and increase our hours, but unfortunately, we just don’t have the staff to open on Mondays and Tuesdays and to be open any later than 8 o’clock.”

Finding seasonal help is a challenge most Lakes Region business owners are accustomed to, but this season has been particularly tough as they struggle to staff their businesses during the pandemic-fueled labor shortage.

“All you have to do is drive through (U.S. Route) 302 and see ‘we’re hiring’ signs. The shortage is definitely affecting people and businesses,” said Robin Mullins, executive director of the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce.

Multiple factors have contributed to the labor shortage this summer, experts say, including a lack of younger employees who typically make up a big part of the seasonal workforce; a lack of available child care options for potential employees; higher unemployment benefits; and a decrease in the number of international employees in Maine due to pauses in visas.

With her staff working overtime, Price worries about overworking current employees in order to meet the increased summer demand.

“We just don’t want to burn our staff out, they’re just exhausted, and we don’t even have people to cover for them for days off. We’ve actually had to close our kitchen for lunch for a shift if we don’t have someone to cover when someone’s sick or something. We just don’t have any extra coverage,” Price said.

Maine businesses have faced a declining labor force for years.

“Especially in some of these hospitality industries, there’s a lot of reliance on entry level workers and younger workers like teenage workers over the summer. Maine has been increasingly having a smaller number of those go around and an increasing number of businesses,” said James Myall, an analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Child care is also an issue, Myall said.

“There are also some things that we’ve seen over the longer term, like people struggling with child care, which has gotten more attention because it’s been exacerbated during the pandemic with (child care) places either closing or reducing their capacity,” he said.

Mullins said child care has certainly factored into the summer’s labor shortage.

“I know that there have been a couple of daycares that have actually had to close,” she said. “You can’t work if you don’t have child care,” Mullins said.

Experts also site a lack of international workers and unemployment benefits as contributing to the labor shortage.

“Historically, Maine has used international visa workers for the summer hiring season. In past years, those visas would come in and there would be plentiful assistance. But because visas are a political issue and there are travel restrictions in place, Maine hasn’t seen its normal visa allotment,” said Matt Lewis, 9resident and CEO of Hospitality Maine.

Meanwhile, the number of people on unemployment rate in the state, 4.8%, remains higher than before the pandemic.

“We think the extra money from unemployment definitely has something to do with it,” Mullins said. “This has been a very difficult thing for us to help people with because if people can’t work, they can’t work.”

On July 1, Gov. Janet Mills came out with a Back to Work Employer Grant Program. The program offers grants to businesses to use as hiring bonuses to pay new employees. Businesses will receive a $1,500 grant for full-time new hires who start a full-time job between June 15 and July 25, received unemployment benefits for the week ending in May 29, 2021, and are employed for at least eight weeks with a wage of less than $25 per hour. Other businesses will receive a $750 grant for part-time new hires with equivalent qualifications.

The program is aimed at helping unemployed Mainers rejoin the workforce.

“Hospitality industries had the biggest slump in terms of employment over the pandemic, so they’re the industries that have the biggest hole to climb out of  in terms of how many workers are missing compared to pre-pandemic,” Myall said.

Businesses facing this shortage have had to craft creative solutions. Some businesses are opting for limited hours, a limited menu or reduced days, while other business are able to offer incentives.

“We hire seasonal and full time workers, but we are down in numbers across the board. We are creating different incentives, and we have housing and benefits for seasonal workers,” said Joyce Mireault, vice president of marketing at Cove Communities, which runs Point Sebago Resort in Casco.

For other rental companies, though demand has been high, staffing has been less of a concern.

“I’m really a one-person operation or my family helps me out with it, but we have a cleaning company that works with us,” said Eric Rowles, owner of Jordan Rentals in Sebago. “This year they have been advertising for $20 an hour, and last year they were able to pay $15 an hour. I (know) what that’s going to do to shove up the costs and everything.”

While the shortage continues well into peak tourism season, Mullins encourages patrons to be patient with employees.

“If you are a customer at a restaurant or a grocery store or any business in the region, remember that the folks that are there are doing the best that they can, with limited staff and for us to all remain patient,” Mullins said. “We all stuck together to help the businesses during the pandemic, and the businesses still continue to need that kind of support. They need for us to be there and recognize that they’re doing the best that they can.”

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