Freeport Town Hall Doug Jones

As the impacts of a labor shortage are felt across the country, many Midcoast municipalities also are struggling to keep town operations properly staffed.

State data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Small Area Employment series show that local Maine government employment has shrunk 6% — about 3,500 employees — from June 2019 to June 2021.

That makes local government the fifth-largest decline in Maine, behind accommodation at 31%, arts and recreation at 21%, food and drinking places at 12% and information at 11%.

In Durham, a town of roughly 4,000 people, Town Manager Kathy Tombarelli said that a fire chief position is open, and the town will soon be looking for a public works driver and laborer. The town also recently hired a new town clerk and deputy treasurer.

“We are in a very competitive labor market,” Tombarelli said, noting smaller applicant pools than usual. “It is very hard to compete with the private sector as well as with larger municipalities in the public sector.”

Tombarelli added that hiring incentives in some private business, like tuition reimbursement and sign on bonuses, are difficult to compete with on the smaller municipal level. She also said it is frequently challenging to operate at a normal capacity while training new employees.

Officials in Freeport recently announced that the town hall will see early closures Monday through Thursday due to staff shortage.

There are six open municipal positions in Freeport, according to the town’s website on Tuesday, with some examples including fire chief, patrol officer, truck driver and deputy town clerk.

“Positions maybe are garnering two-thirds or half the amount of interest as they would have two years ago,” said Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph, noting that six job listings is more than what is typical.

Joseph said that workers in departments with vacancies are doing a good job at picking up the slack, however that is “not a forever solution.”

According to Maine Center for Economic Policy Policy Analyst James Myall, there are several issues, some of which are ongoing and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, that have contributed to the current labor shortage.

Examples include the absence of younger, seasonal employees, the lack of younger international employees due to a pause in visas, low wages and parent’s inability to find childcare.

Particularly in Maine, the state’s aging and retired population also contribute to the shortage. According to a 2018 study by the Population Reference Bureau, Maine has the oldest population in the US, with 20.6% of the population over the age of 65.

In Brunswick, there were nine different jobs listed on the town website on Tuesday, some open for multiple spots, varying from communications officer to seasonal park ranger.

“The biggest issue right now has been just number of applicants for positions,” said Town Manager John Eldridge. “But we’re in the same boat with everybody else when it comes to that.”

Challenges from the vacancies, according to Eldridge, include the inability to do certain summer projects particularly in the parks and recreation maintenance department, which is down a few members.

Like many other police departments, Brunswick’s Chief of Police Scott Stewart said recruiting has been a challenge. There are currently three open police positions and one dispatch position. In addition to those vacancies, Stewart said, the department currently has four officers in field training who do not yet work on their own, and one officer is on military deployment.

“We’ve had to try to spread our resources as best we can,” Stewart said. “As a result, we’re not able to do as much proactive traffic enforcement in areas we’d like to do.”

Eldridge said that, in an attempt attract more officers, the department agreed to advance vacation time upfront.

In Bath, the city has had six employees retire over the past six months. They are currently hiring for a patrol officer and public works mechanic.

“It’s also retaining the employees we have and making sure that people are happy to be working for the city and continue to work for the city,” said Assistant City Manager Marc Meyers. “We’ve got to continue to find ways to make this an enticing place that people want to come to work.”

Meyers said that city has been regularly hiring all year, although competing with the booming construction business and Bath Iron Works at times presents challenges.

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