The problem is visible almost everywhere. Maybe it’s an ice cream shop forced to close before the end of the season; a local school, racked by burnout, about to be overly reliant on community help; one of the state’s ferry operators slashing its schedules, or any store or service provider left with no choice but to pare its opening hours further and further back.

Gabe Wagner, a deckhand on the Aucocisco III, casts a wet dock line ashore at Maine State Pier last week. Casco Bay Lines is reducing the number of trips to outer islands because of a labor shortage as college students return to school. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Summer brought with it – as it tends to – tourist business and a vital infusion of teenage workers. As we noted with no shortage of gratitude last month, it wasn’t that long ago that giving a job to a teen was considered more an act of charity than a business decision. The last two-plus years have led to a whole new calculus for the service economy.

“It used to be that a ‘help wanted’ sign on your door would have people coming in,” Tony Sachs, owner of Big Top Deli in Brunswick, told the Times Record last week. “It just doesn’t happen anymore. We try to rely on people who are working here to find their friends, but we’ve hired most of everybody’s friends at this point.”

As we move into the fall, gaping job openings and sustained supply chain challenges guarantee that goods and services we’ve traditionally taken for granted are going to become even more scarce and more expensive.

This is where the consumer comes in.

Repeated experiences at staff- and stock-strapped operations can be vexing; long waits, unexpected (still!) closures or curtailed hours or services can derail a day. Here the consumer plays a significant role. The more impatient or irate the customer or client gets, the more undesirable the workplace becomes.


Certain workplaces have become very undesirable indeed. Flight attendants, to give one high-profile example, are facing unusual rates of unpleasant or threatening interactions and abuse. (In 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration investigated a total of 146 “unruly-passenger cases.” Last year, that number rose to 1,099.)

The manager of a Michigan restaurant chose to close its doors early last month, so acute was the tension between servers and customers. From fast-food outlets to post offices, we’ve all witnessed such hostile exchanges playing out.

Not all managers will respond adequately to the present crisis. Here in Maine as elsewhere, from local arms of Starbucks and Chipotle to the nursing staff at Maine Medical Center, the negotiated union contract has become an increasingly attractive guard against straitened resources and punishing demands made of staff.

Workers, many of them very new and hastily trained, aren’t trying to make us wait. They’re embroiled in a unique set of economic conditions, the likes of which the U.S. has never encountered before and, under those conditions, are doing their best.

Business owners and managers right now have an enhanced responsibility to ensure that their workplaces are running as efficiently and harmoniously as possible. The Federal Reserve, insofar as it can, has a responsibility to try to straighten out the American labor market, where there are currently almost two open jobs for every available worker.

As for the rest of us? We can take a breath, bring our expectations into check and cut as many service providers we interact with as much slack as we can muster. At a time like this, nothing less will do.

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