Maine showed a slight job gains in October, but the labor force is far from recovering to a pre-pandemic level with employers struggling to hire in a competitive market.

The state gained a net 900 jobs last month, an increase following losses over the late summer and early autumn. Overall, private sector jobs increased by 1,500, offset by a decrease of 600 public sector positions, mostly in local government, the Maine Department of Labor reported Friday.

The statewide unemployment rate for October was 4.9 percent, about the same level it has been for nine months. Labor market participation – those people who are employed or unemployed and actively looking for work – remained about 60 percent, 2 percentage points less than before the pandemic.

“Except for a rise in June and July, the number of jobs has been relatively unchanged since March,” the labor department’s Maine Center for Workforce Information and Research said in a news release.

Payroll jobs increased by 12,700 over the past year, with the largest gains in leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, and manufacturing. However, the labor market is still 26,400 jobs below where it was in February 2020, before the pandemic disrupted the economy.

Maine’s job gains in October were slight compared with national increases in the same month and revised numbers for August and September that showed more job creation than initially estimated.

Ongoing high rates of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths through October may have limited job growth. Maine state economists have said the labor market follows waves of COVID-19 infections. When coronavirus cases surge, the job market weakens. When coronavirus wanes, hiring picks up.

Issues keeping workers on the sidelines remain the same as they have been since tens of thousands were forced out of their jobs as U.S. communities went into lockdown in March 2020.

A lack of accessible and affordable child care, disruptions to school schedules, workers cautious of infection and serious illness, and a mismatch between jobless workers and in-demand skills remain barriers to a robust job market recovery, economists have said.

Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement this week that all Maine adults are eligible for a vaccine booster shot could help improve the state’s job recovery, said Arthur Phillips, a policy analyst for the progressive-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy. Elements of the $1.85 trillion Build Back Better bill passed by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday could aid employment, too, Phillips added.

“The best way to remove barriers to returning to work is to ensure workers are safe and protected so that they can provide for themselves and their families,” Phillips said in a statement. “The governor’s update and passage of the Build Back Better bill, with its investments in child care in particular, will help improve the jobs situation for Maine.”

It will likely take until 2023 for Maine’s labor market to recover to pre-pandemic levels, the state’s Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission said in its November report.

The job forecast in 2021 was revised downward because of “slower-than-expected gains in recent months and uncertainty regarding the path of the pandemic,” the commission reported. However, “optimism around employer willingness to raise wages and benefits” led to a higher forecast for job growth between 2023 and 2025, it said.

Sluggish job gains in recent months have sent wages upward, but also interrupted services across industries. Public infrastructure projects were delayed or scaled back, partly because of rising labor costs and an insufficient number of skilled workers even before the pandemic. Staffing challenges have strained Medicare-funded services for Mainers with intellectual disabilities and other conditions.

Hiring issues have even affected snow plowing companies and some have canceled residential work to focus on commercial clients. That is aside from slow service and waiting times at restaurants and product shortages familiar to many consumers.

MaineHealth, one of Maine’s largest employers, warned last week that its capacity was strained by a combination of many very sick COVID-19 patients and an acute staffing challenge.

While a small share of the company’s health care workers quit over a state vaccine mandate that went into effect last month, the labor problems MaineHealth is experiencing predate the pandemic and were exacerbated by concerns about health and safety and employee burnout in a physically and emotionally draining setting.

MaineHealth has about 3,000 open jobs across its system of hospitals and healthcare centers – about 10 percent of its workforce, company spokesman John Porter said. Of those, nearly 800 are nursing positions, he added.

Staffing shortages and the amount of time and resources the hospital company puts into treating COVID-19 patients means it has had to restrict some elective surgeries and other procedures, CEO Andrew Mueller said in a telephone call with reporters last month.

“The fear of exposing others and working in really difficult conditions to provide great care to folks has really taken a toll,” Mueller said. “If we had no (COVID-19) patients, we would still have a workforce crisis.”

At the same time, if there were fewer COVID patients, he said, “it would make things much, much better and easier to manage at the moment.”


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