Mainers have left their jobs in droves since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. Many retired or retired early. Some quit stressful jobs and switched careers. Others started their own businesses, swapped steady jobs for gig work, went back to school or became stay-at-home caretakers. Here are a few of their stories.

STEVE CHABOT: ‘I’ve always considered myself a teacher at heart’

Steve Chabot, the former principal at Falmouth Elementary School. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Steve Chabot needed a break.

Until the last of June, Chabot, 42, was principal at Falmouth Elementary School.

It was probably the best job of his 20-year education career, he said, something he aspired to and was proud of. He had moved up from assistant principal to principal in July 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

A self-described “people pleaser,” he strives to find solutions that make everyone feel heard, to make compromises wherever possible. During the pandemic that wasn’t always possible.

He was often trying to pacify factions at cross purposes: parents who wanted their children back in school full time and teachers who wanted to stay remote.

He was fielding between 200 and 300 emails a day, plus about 100 text messages. There was no turning off work. From the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed, he was on the phone, in a Zoom meeting or answering an email.

“When you’re the principal, you’re the complaint department,” he said.

It felt like schools were expected to solve some of the major coronavirus problems before the rest of the country. It wore him down mentally, emotionally and physically. So he walked away.

Chabot said he felt a bit of guilt in his decision to leave. He had a good team and a staff he likes, but mostly he just feels relief.

“My kids and I just needed a break,” he said.

Since then, he’s spent more time with his family and picked up a fun side gig as an extra for Hulu’s “Wild Crime,” a documentary series filming in Portland, and a few local commercials after that.

He plans to “run point at home” for a while but said he’ll probably go back to full-time education and coaching at some point.

Until then, he’s found a happy middle ground.

Chabot recently accepted a part-time position as an English teacher at Gorham High School.

The part-time status gives him more flexibility to be a parent, he said, and it’s close enough for him to bike to work.

“I’ve always considered myself a teacher at heart,” he said.

The last few years as an administrator felt less about kids and more about being a sounding board for grievances.

This winter, Chabot served as the supervisor for a group of high school students’ mountain biking project. It was this experience that convinced him he belongs in the classroom and not in the main office or in late-night board meetings.

He’s taking it day by day, but Chabot said he “needed a half-time” and is happy to spend some extra time with his kids while they’re young.

— By Hannah LaClaire

SANDY CLEVELAND ‘Being “retired” to me means doing what brings you the most joy’

Sandy Cleveland at Skillins Greenhouses, where she now works. Cleveland retired in 2020 and this spring decided to get a part-time job at Skillins in Cumberland . As an avid gardener, she said she has always dreamed of getting to work with plants. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sandy Cleveland always thought being in the garden, surrounded by plants and flowers, would be the perfect way to spend a workday.

It wasn’t until May, two years after the pandemic hastened her retirement, that she realized she could do just that.

Cleveland, 72, now works part-time at Skillins Greenhouses in Cumberland, a nearly 180-degree transformation from her previous corporate career.

Cleveland spent most of her career as an executive assistant for C-Suite executives and, starting in 2013, worked at The Park Danforth, a senior housing and assisted-living facility in Portland.

Cleveland retired from her full-time position in 2017 after breaking her back in a freak accident. But she missed her co-workers and the residents, she said, so she returned as a per diem employee.

Just a short time later, however, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and as a senior living community with vulnerable residents, The Park Danforth couldn’t have people coming in from the outside.

Her position was eliminated, and Cleveland found herself in retirement yet again.

It only took two years for that to get old.

Cleveland would have stayed at The Park Danforth for as long as she could have, were it not for the pandemic. But once she decided to leave retirement (again) this year, she knew she wanted to do something different.

Cleveland always thought that if she could do anything, she’d want to be a park ranger or work in a greenhouse.

A park ranger didn’t seem like it was in the cards, but she has been an avid gardener for years – the extensive gardens at her log cabin home in Raymond are a testament to that. She’s been a regular customer at Skillins for years, so the opportunity to work there seemed like the perfect fit.

It’s only been a few months, but the transition from customer to employee has been a good one. Cleveland feels at home in the perennial garden section, caring for the plants and helping customers.

She’s always been in sales, marketing or customer service roles, so it comes naturally to her, she said. It feels good to help people and it feels good too, to know that owner Terry Skillin trusts her enough to represent his company.

It couldn’t be more different than the decades of work before now, but she’s happy.

“Being ‘retired’ to me means doing what brings you the most joy,” she said.

— By Hannah LaClaire

KYLE FREDRICK MCNAIR: ‘I wanted to sell something … that everybody loves’

Kyle Fredrick McNair of Fred’s Fried Dough in Portland. In the background are employees Miguel Rojas, left, and Melakai Mao. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Kyle Fredrick McNair, 27, moved to Maine from New York seven years ago. He would go out in the Old Port in Portland and notice that the few late-night food establishments got a lot of business when bars closed. He thought having a food cart would be a good way to make a little extra money.

“I wanted to sell something late night that everybody loves, and I figured out it’d be fried dough,” he said.

He bought a cart off of Craigslist and customized it, and Fred’s Fried Dough was born.

He started in the spring of 2019 as a side project, while he worked full time for the City of Portland writing parking tickets. When COVID-19 hit, he used his time off to build up the business. He worked on the cart and built up his social media presence.

“I know (COVID) was so bad for people,” he said. “For me, though, it was exactly what I needed. It gave me a second to breathe, look around and kind of hit the ground running.”

When people started venturing out again, in 2021, they were less interested in the classic scoop-and-serve catered meals, and preferred food trucks and carts for events. His business was booming, and he started booking huge jobs, such as the Hannaford Employee Appreciation Day and the Great State of Maine Air Show. He bought a second cart last year.

Business continued going strong in 2022. But once he started making mistakes, he realized that his full-time job was getting in the way. This summer he quit his job with the city to focus on Fred’s.

As for future plans, he said, he wants to stay in the food industry. For now, he is expanding, with another fried dough cart, an ice cream cart and a lemonade stand in the works.

— By Jordan Andrews

RACHEL HAMILTON: ‘It took a global pandemic really for me to make the switch’

Rachel Hamilton was a stage manager for The Kennedy Center when the pandemic hit and theater shut down. She is now pursuing a career in social work with a focus on athletes’ mental health. Photo courtesy of Rachel Hamilton

Rachel Hamilton spent a year as an apprentice stage manager at Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, shortly after graduating in 2014 with a degree in theater from George Washington University. Then, she launched into a whirlwind career as a freelance stage manager in New York and Washington, D.C.

She managed shows for The Kennedy Center, went on its national tour of “Cinderella,” and stage-managed shows on national tours for its Theater for Young Audiences productions. She kept at it for years. Theater was her identity.

Then, in March of 2020, while she was touring with Mo Willems’ “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” in El Paso, Texas, the world of theater came to a dramatic halt.

The production team made its way back to Washington, but Hamilton didn’t keep her apartment while on tour, so she went home to Portland to stay with her parents. She ended up staying for nearly two years.

“I was there for some time and was really feeling the burnout of the entertainment industry,” she said. “It’s an incredibly grueling industry where you’re working six days a week and you’re severely underpaid. The Kennedy Center was always wonderful to me and always paid me what my union said they should, but it’s still not a lucrative job for my position.”

She had always been interested in sports, having been a varsity athlete at Waynflete School in Portland, and she had taken college courses in psychology. She realized she could combine these interests in a new career path, as a licensed clinical social worker focusing on the mental health of collegiate athletes. She is now enrolled in Syracuse University’s school of social work.

Hamilton believes she would still be managing stage shows today were it not for the forced break to reassess.

“It was one of those decisions where I think it took a global pandemic really for me to make the switch,” she said. “When you’re in an industry that is all encompassing … it really becomes a huge part of your identity.”

She said she misses it more now that theater is in full swing, the Tony awards were held in person this year, and her old friends are posting about their jobs in theater on social media. But she is happy with where she is now.

“I’m in a wonderful relationship, I live with my awesome partner, and I’m in a program that’s really interesting to me,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to come home in the evenings and cook dinner and not have to be at work.”

— By Jordan Andrews

MARK BONIN: ‘I made the decision at 62 that I was done. … I want no pressure’

Mark Bonin, who left his career in TV ad sales in 2020 and chose to semi-retire, outside his home in Gray. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For 30 years Mark Bonin sold advertising for local TV stations. The pay was good, but eventually stress took its toll.

In October 2020, five years shy of his retirement age, Bonin, 64, decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.

“Every week you are sitting in front of a sales manager explaining why or why not you are making your goals,” Bonin said. “I was laying awake nights thinking about ‘how do I make budget?’ I was just done.”

Bonin left his career years before he intended. He expected to work until at least 65 and probably longer.

But the coronavirus pandemic made him change his mind. Not only did Bonin leave his job, but he also sold his home in Auburn. Now he splits his time between a lakeside cottage in Gray and a winter home in Florida. He’s cut back on expenses dramatically and tries to live more simply.

“The pandemic definitely made a difference. It made me look at alternatives and rethink things,” Bonin said.

Though stepping away from his career, Bonin wanted to stay busy. He qualified to become a notary and started picking up assignments from companies across the country to help finalize property title documents.

When that work started to slow down, he got a part-time job at a local supermarket. It’s just enough to get him out of the house a few days a week and a chance to meet new people.

“I made the decision at 62 that I was done,” Bonin said. “I still wanted to do something, but as I told my friends and family, I want no pressure. If that means being a greeter at a Walmart, I don’t care.”

— By Peter McGuire

ROSE BARBOZA: ‘Our mission is to sustain and innovate a Black ecosystem in Maine’

Rose Barboza was working for a car rental company at the airport when she was furloughed for two months in early 2020.

During those two months, not being forced to wake up and go to a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, Barboza started to reimagine how she wanted to live her life.

“The preparation for that came from years and years of me working for other people,” said Barboza, 32, who lives in Saco. “I was trying to figure out, ‘What do I do? What gifts do I have? How do I share those with the world in a way that makes sense and isn’t just a hobby?’”

A few weeks later, demonstrations sprang up across the country, protesting racism and police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis. Barboza wanted to find a way to help her community and support Black-owned businesses in Maine.

“Originally it was just like, ‘Let me figure out what’s missing in the community,'” she said. “I know a lot of Black (owned) businesses, but Maine had no directory.”

So she created one.

Black Owned Maine launched in June 2020 and was an immediate success.

By October, Black Owned Maine had gained enough traction that it had turned into a nonprofit and become Barboza’s full-time job.

Now, the organization has almost 20,000 social media followers and the online directory has more than 400 businesses.

“At its core, our mission is to sustain and innovate a Black ecosystem in Maine,” she said. “That means looking within our community first and recognizing we have lots of strengths that have been overlooked or underrepresented.”

Two years later, it’s anything but a hobby.

The nonprofit organization has served as a business incubator, provided one-on-one support for businesses and offered mutual aid. Barboza and Jerry Edwards, who also goes by Genius Black, launched a Black Owned Maine podcast.

Now Barboza and her recently hired development manager, Joshua Brister, are trying to figure out what comes next for the nonprofit.

Ultimately, she hopes to see Black Owned Maine be established as an economic development agency for Black-owned businesses.

But she doesn’t necessarily see herself at its helm forever.

“I want to boost the ecosystem and figure out other opportunities for myself based on the gaps that exist” in the infrastructure, she said.

— By Hannah LaClaire

KELLEY MCDANIEL: ‘I needed more respect in my life’

Kelley McDaniel, a former teacher, quit her job because of the stresses the pandemic placed upon educators. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Kelley McDaniel, 53, spent more than 18 of her 24 years in education as a school librarian. In the nooks and crannies of bookshelves, she found a passion for education that ultimately led her to a career she thought she’d never leave.

That was, however, until the pandemic hit. Now, McDaniel is looking for a career far away from classrooms and blackboards.

“Being a school librarian was a wonderful job. It was my identity,” she said. “(The pandemic) really did change everything.”

McDaniel began her career in education at Reiche Elementary School before later moving to King Middle School. After nearly two decades as a librarian and being spurred on by a passion for linguistics, she pursued her special education endorsement and began teaching literacy at a special purpose private school in 2020.

“I never thought I would find another home, until I found (special education) and I went, ‘Oh, my God, there really is another place that I belong,'” she said. “I became passionate about traditionally underserved populations.”

Almost as soon as she began settling into her new position, McDaniel was put into the throes of the pandemic. As with most educators, the stresses of online learning took a toll on McDaniel as her work-life balance eroded away.

“There started to be this expectation that you needed to be on call and accessible all the time,” McDaniel said. “I kept adding apps to my phone so that I could be contacted and reached throughout the day.”

This erosion of her work-life balance was compounded by what she called a “loss of civility” in the classroom. She no longer felt respected in her workplace.

“No matter how hard we tried, it just didn’t work,” she said. “There were whole classes of people who lost a lot in those years, and that anger and frustration leaks out in different ways.”

Finally, in early 2021, McDaniel reached a breaking point.

“I just realized I didn’t want to be the recipient of that frustration anymore … I needed more respect in my life,” McDaniel said.

The compounding of these two sources of stress pushed her out of the workforce. After leaving her teaching position, she gave herself until the end of 2022 to find a job.

During the job hunt, McDaniel filled her time with things that she enjoyed, including writing and keeping up with politics and current events. However, she felt that she was still missing something meaningful.

When a family member encouraged her to apply at L.L. Bean as a seasonal employee, she jumped at the opportunity.

The move proved to be a blessing in disguise for McDaniel. At the outdoor gear retailer, she found a defined sense of purpose and boundaries that clarified what she was looking for in a job.

“All of the things that I felt like I lost working in schools, I found again at L.L. Bean,” McDaniel said. “I found clarity. I found clarity about what your job is, what you’re here to do. When you’re here, and when you’re home.”

But she’s still on the hunt for a full-time job. And although she hasn’t found one yet, she has begun a journey of self-discovery.

“My job when I was a librarian was my identity – I was Kelley McDaniel, librarian,” she said. “I realized that I was Kelley McDaniel, who is passionate about politics and has really strong writing skills.”

Although the job market has been challenging for McDaniel, she remains hopeful about her prospects. She hopes to get a job that gives her a meaningful experience while also having a solid work-life balance.

— By Lucas Dufalla

KEEGAN WHITFORD: ‘I think the pandemic really gave me an opportunity’

Keegan Whitford outside of the shop in South Portland where they work as a blacksmith. Whitford left a job as administrative assistant during the pandemic to become a blacksmith. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Graduating in 2020 during a pandemic was not an ideal time to launch a career in ceramics. So Keegan Whitford started piecing together clerical and administrative pursuits after graduating from Maine College of Art’s ceramics program.

“I was doing very basic clerical spreadsheet stuff,” said Whitford, who uses they/them pronouns. They worked for MECA for a while before and after graduation. “I was doing a lot of alumni outreach, talking to past graduates asking for donations and all of that. Then I was unemployed for a while and I was doing some part-time, at-home remote work on the computer.”

After that they worked for the Maine Jewish Museum, doing similar clerical work. Then one day a friend who worked at Brant & Cochran blacksmith shop in South Portland told them the company needed some extra hands.

“I came in for an interview, and they trained me, and I’ve been working there pretty much full time since then,” Whitford said. “It was just like I was in the right place at the right time. It was very, very interesting. It was totally out of the blue. I think the pandemic really gave me an opportunity to say ‘screw it’ and just try something that I wouldn’t have ever had the chance to.”

Whitford has been with the company since June 2021. They said their background in ceramics, because it involves working with heat, helped them get the position. They started out cleaning the shop in the mornings, and slowly the job expanded to include more and more of the processes of forging and blacksmithing. The company makes traditional Maine camp axes, restores vintage axes, and does custom contract work for forestry companies and colleges across the country.

“I really love it,” Whitford said. “I’m here every day now, and there’s a lot of expansion happening in this shop, too, in the future, so I’m very excited to see where it goes.”

— By Jordan Andrews

ELOISE MELCHER: ‘I just want to do something that is more effective’

Eloise Melcher poses for a portrait outside of the law firm where she is interning for the summer. Melcher left her job as a congressional staffer after the pandemic to pursue a law degree. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Eloise Melcher had plans to become a lawyer, but with a busy work schedule, she kept putting her applications off.

“I was worried I just wanted to go to law school because I was afraid of getting a real job,” said Melcher, 27.

The Bowdoin native got into politics at college. She interned for a member of Congress, then, after graduation, she started working in constituent services for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.

Melcher really enjoyed her job. And then the pandemic came.

Day after day of hearing people’s experience as unemployment spiked, illness and death spread and the economy teetered on the brink made her want to do more than answer phones and emails.

“I just heard sad stories over and over again. I kept thinking I wish I could do more for people. I just want to do something that is more effective.”

Last year she started working on a degree at University of Maine School of Law. This summer she’s interning in family law and realizing the impact her new career can have.

“I wanted to do something where I could say ‘I have skills and can help you,'” Melcher said. “Really anything that is client-focused and helps everyday folks is what I want to do.”

Like generations of graduate students before, Melcher got a part-time job at a restaurant this summer to help pay the bills. She was shocked at how easy it was for someone with no experience to get hired.

“I applied on Indeed, didn’t even write a cover letter. Pretty quickly I heard back that they wanted to schedule an interview, and I was offered a job at the end of the interview,” Melcher said.

It’s a nice place to work but not enough to lure Melcher away from her goals.

“Every single place has ‘Help Wanted’ signs. I can’t work at every single place. I don’t want to work at Dunkin’; I want to be a lawyer.”

— By Peter McGuire

EILEEN LEVESQUE: ‘It’s much better … to put my energy where it needs to go.’

Eileen Levesque in her home office. Levesque left her job as the head pharmacist at a popular pharmacy in January. The stress of the job was impacting her mental health, and despite the high salary, she decided to leave and start her own business. She now runs a pharmacogenomics and nutrigenomics consulting business from her Cumberland home. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Eileen Levesque credits burnout from her previous job as the general manager and head pharmacist at a specialty pharmacy in Portland as the push she needed to start her own business.

It was a great place to work, she said, with a wonderful team and a solid reputation.

But trying to carefully, empathetically and scientifically manage a staff of 30 people while balancing constantly changing corporate rules became too much.

“Some things didn’t seem quite logical, but I had to follow (the guidelines) even if it impacted staff in a way that I didn’t want it to,” she said. The vaccine mandate lowered morale, she said. There were staffing shortages, and even when the company bumped the rate of pay, it couldn’t get the people it needed.

Levesque, 42, said she had “entrepreneurial aspirations” before the pandemic, but burnout from the job pushed her to make the leap sooner.

She put in her notice.

After 18 years of working for other pharmacological companies, Levesque launched her business, Bespoke Health Partners, in late January.

She runs a pharmacogenomics and nutrigenomics consulting business, which she said helps patients and providers examine a person’s genetic makeup to help guide more precise medication and nutritional recommendations.

It’s particularly useful for mental health medication, she said – something that has seen an increased need during the pandemic.

In a perfect world, Levesque said she may have waited a little longer, given herself a few more years to save money before starting a new venture.

At first, there was an adjustment period, a sense of, “Uh oh, what have I done?” she said.

Levesque gave plenty of notice (five months) and therefore had time to prepare, but there’s still a lot of pressure associated with going from a high-paying job to no income, she said.

She’s had to make sacrifices, like trading in her SUV for a used car with high mileage, but she’s happier doing what she wants to do.

“Overall, it’s much better because of that autonomy to put my energy where it needs to go,” she said of her mental health. “And to help my patients in the way I think I can help them is fulfilling.”

— By Hannah LaClaire

DICK LAMBERT: ‘When … it’s not fun anymore, you just know it’s time to leave’

Dick Lambert, former director of code enforcement for the city of Saco, worked for the city for 35 years and loved his job. When the pandemic hit, most of his work shifted online, so he decided to retire. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As his high school classmates graduated and headed off to college or the local tannery, Dick Lambert went somewhere a little different – town hall. Following graduation, Lambert was elected to the Biddeford City Council at 19, and little did he know this move would inspire a 39-year-long career in municipal government.

“When I graduated, there were no jobs, there was a recession, so I ended up pursuing politics,” he said.

Lambert, now 65, spent 35 of his nearly 40-year career in local government as the director of code enforcement for the neighboring City of Saco. He was drawn to the job because it combined two things that he loved the most: local government and construction.

“It was a career move that I never regretted,” he said.

During his time in Saco, Lambert found communicating with the public to solve problems to be extremely rewarding. He fondly remembers his participation in a fund-raising drive in which he taught local students about the history of Saco City Hall.

When the pandemic hit Saco in 2020, Lambert was left without this face-to-face interaction he valued so much.

“I used to love that interaction with folks. The pandemic was something totally new, we didn’t know what was involved,” he said.

He was also confronted with another issue – trying to make home inspections viable in a virtual space.

“I had one employee where all that inspector did was inspect apartments,” he said. “Well, he couldn’t do those anymore, so I had to find something for those employees to do. It was challenging.”

On top of these work-related stresses, Lambert also felt responsible for the health of his community. In addition to his work in code enforcement, he was also the local health official for Saco, meaning that he was at the forefront of the city’s pandemic response.

“I found myself ill-prepared for what happened. It was hard to stay on top of things and get folks to do what was safe,” he said. “There was a lot of stress about worrying whether or not public gatherings were happening and how to keep people safe.”

All of this excess stress pushed Lambert to retire in September 2020. Although he had considered retirement prior to the pandemic, he never imagined he would retire so early from a job that he loved.

“When you go to work and it’s not fun anymore, you just know it’s time to leave,” he said.

In his retirement, Lambert has been trying to shape the next generation of code enforcement officials. He works with the local code enforcement union to hold classes in which he teaches potential code enforcers the tricks of the trade.

“We need to attract young people to the profession and mentor them,” he said. “Some say that leaders are born and not made, but I think you can help develop talents in young folks that will lead them to become great leaders.”

— By Lucas Dufalla

DAN KEHLENBACH: ‘I didn’t know what to do … I was at a loss’

Standing in his home gym in Scarborough, Dan Kehlenbach says he lost many of his traditional opportunities as a certified strength and conditioning specialist as a result of the pandemic. But he has since taken on the role of caregiver for his 86-year-old father-in-law. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Dan Kehlenbach is used to starting over. As the spouse of an active-duty member of the military, he would move every few years when his wife, LuAnn, was re-stationed. A certified strength and conditioning specialist, he could always find something to do, wherever they ended up.

“It’s kind of like an automatic reset,” he said. “You’re kind of rebuilding everything every two or three years. I was fine with that, because before COVID, I would try something different each time to broaden my experiences, but now it’s kind of at a halt.”

LuAnn, a commander with the Coast Guard, was stationed in Maine in the summer of 2020, at the height of COVID-19 restrictions. Suddenly the traditional gym or clinic settings where Kehlenbach would offer training were off the table. Even if such facilities were open, he didn’t want to bring the virus home to his wife and put her work in jeopardy.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I was at a loss.”

He hoped he could get a community-based training program started. He thought there were probably people who could use help with fitness but could not afford one-on-one training or gym memberships. He reached out to different organizations and municipalities, but with all that was going on, no one was taking volunteers for fitness programs. He tried doing online yoga classes and virtual training, but that didn’t work either.

“That’s really not me,” he said, “and as a coach, I want to be there with the person. You’ve got so much more communication that you can tap into that you can’t online.”

Nothing he was trying seemed to be working.

“It was really bizarre,” Kehlenbach said. “It was just weird – very, very weird. I’ve never encountered this before. I thought that fitness and conditioning would be a pretty stable career path wherever we go. But now we’re dealing with the new normal.”

Then, about eight months ago, his mother-in-law died from COVID-19, and his father-in-law, who is now 86, came to live with them. Kehlenbach took on the role of caregiver, bringing his father-in-law to doctor’s appointments and providing companionship. While that has been challenging, Kehlenbach said, they are fortunate that his wife’s job pays well enough that they are not struggling financially.

He is now prioritizing his new role and looks at it as an experience he is growing from.

“I would hate to see him at a facility where he was alone,” Kehlenbach said. “It’s a bummer that I can’t do what I love doing, but I’m looking at it as family comes first. Maybe this is all a big blessing in disguise, in a way … and who knows? Perhaps there might be an opportunity that I can get involved with at our next duty station.”

When it is time to make their next move, instead of looking for the usual small two-bedroom, the Kehlenbachs plan to find a home with enough room for their father-in-law to join them.

— By Jordan Andrews

CHRIS LEWICKI: ‘You need to provide more pay, benefits or (better) hours’

Chris Lewicki was an hourly worker at Hannaford but moved on to work in computer science after a tough experience stocking shelves during the height of the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Chris Lewicki’s experience as a so-called essential worker in the early, terrifying days of the coronavirus pandemic quickly pushed him into a better career and out of the hourly service workforce.

The 24-year-old studied computer science at University of Maine but left school when his financial aid fell through. He started working at a supermarket to make ends meet.

He’d worked there for about three years and had a job stocking dairy aisle coolers when the pandemic hit Maine.

All of a sudden, going into work felt like a threat to his health. Abusive customers and an uncaring employer turned it into a nightmare.

“I started seeing the worst sides of people in the community. People were incredibly rude and demeaning,” Lewicki said.

“I just got very quickly very tired of waking up at 4 a.m. and thinking, ‘Is this the day someone is going to cough directly in my face and kill me?”

Every day after work he’d apply for computer science jobs and contact people in his online communities for leads. Eventually a contact encouraged him to apply for a junior software developer-operations job. Lewicki landed it.

Two years later he’s still there and has taken on more responsibility. The pay is much better than his old job, and he can work from home. Lewicki feels like he has a foothold in the industry and opportunities to grow a career.

Most importantly, he feels appreciated, safe and cared for. Based on his experience during the pandemic, it’s no surprise employers can’t find enough people.

“I constantly see business owners complaining that no one wants to work. No, they just don’t want to work for you,” Lewicki said. “If you can’t find people to fill whatever job you are offering, you need to provide more pay, benefits or hours.”

— By Peter McGuire

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