ELLSWORTH — As federal unemployment benefits — the added assistance established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — ended Sept. 5, local businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry, are reflecting on the impact those benefits had on the workforce.
The answer is complicated, with area employers noting that the federal benefits kept more workers at home and played a role in the staffing crunch felt statewide, but that other reasons outside of the pandemic have been limiting the industry’s workforce for years.
Now, industry leaders are working together to carry out solutions — one being a five-year plan released Sept. 15 by HospitalityMaine, a nonprofit trade group whose mission is to “improve, promote, protect and educate the lodging, restaurant and hospitality industries.”
The group’s major focus is to secure a stable workforce statewide.
“Maine has been facing a workforce shortage and crisis for years now,” said Brian Langley, chef and owner of the Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth.
Langley’s roots in the hospitality industry run deep. He serves on the board of HospitalityMaine, taught for 27 years at Hancock County Technical Center and worked for several committees while serving in the Legislature, including the Labor Committee.
Langley said the current staffing shortage “has been looming for quite a while.”
While the hospitality industry was hit especially hard by this employment crunch, Langley said that sectors all over the state are experiencing staffing shortfalls, due in part to the “mass exodus” of baby-boomers retiring from the workforce.
“It was just exacerbated, I think, by the pandemic,” he added.
Additionally, a drastically smaller number of visas were granted to guest workers who typically come to Maine from countries across the globe to work the busy tourist season.
He said that the federal unemployment benefits, an additional $300 per week for out-of-work Americans, did not make hiring easy.
Throughout the summer, Langley said he hired employees who left mid-shift but still filed unemployment claims. He had one applicant who asked to work under the table (a request Langley refused). He said he was hung up on when he called applicants who applied via Indeed.com.
Langley was able to secure a few employees when the federal benefits ended, which would have been more helpful in June than this late in the season.
Supply chain issues plagued Langley’s summer, some of which, such as a shortage of lemonade, was due in part to manufacturers not having enough staff to keep up with production.
Langley explained that the blueprint developed by HospitalityMaine includes components to help build the industry’s workforce, while also noting that “this industry is going to have to do more with less people,” and that those fewer people will have more training, more skills and higher wages.
“This industry will be transformed,” he said, from being labor-oriented to positions for working professionals.
Components of the blueprint include working with resources that already exist and aligning curriculums with the state’s 27 technical centers and seven community college campuses to create “a seamless pathway for students to be able to move from school to post-secondary to work,” Langley explained.
The plan also includes increasing awareness of opportunities that already exist in the field but may be more behind the scenes, such as positions in marketing, bookkeeping and accounting.
Additionally, the plan will target disadvantaged communities to help bring them into the workforce.
Langley expressed his deep gratitude “to the people who showed up,” and continued working in the industry, even taking on extra shifts.
“They carried the ball a long way,” Langley said. “They’ve been on the front lines for a couple years now.”
He said the local economy could have collapsed without them, especially with this season’s record tourist turnout. He said it “kills him” to see his colleagues in the industry who have not had the staff to take advantage of this summer’s tourist boom.
Paul Markosian, who owns Finn’s Irish Pub and Flexit Café & Bakery with his wife, Lorena Stearns, echoed the view that staffing issues long preceded the coronavirus pandemic.
“This area has been having this issue for years,” he said, adding that there aren’t enough local people to fill seasonal job positions. He also referenced the area’s housing shortage.
“There’s not enough housing for [employees],” he said. “That’s something we need to look at,” so that large and small businesses can attract the workers they need.
He said large-scale projects, such as building housing at the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton, could be a solution.
Markosian highlighted the stress of working in a restaurant and that food service workers may not be happy with the industry’s current work/life balance.
He said he lost one employee recently who wanted a 9-to-5 job with benefits.
“I can’t fault her for that,” he said, adding that he thinks the industry as a whole is starting to look into how to make available positions into appealing career options.
Markosian said he has “experienced an upward tick in applications and inquiries in employment,” since the federal unemployment benefits expired, but noted fall is traditionally a time of change in the local labor market.
This time of year, Markosian’s businesses are usually grappling with having enough staff as high school and college students return to classes. It’s also a time when seasonal businesses start to close.
He said that he does not think the recent applications he’s received were from workers who had been unemployed.
Markosian shared that both businesses try to do their recruitment before the height of the season, but when Finn’s did not have enough staff this summer and had to reduce hours as a result, he and Stearns started advertising again in August.
He said that he was not convinced that the expansion of federal benefits was the main reason for the industry’s staffing shortage.
“I think it goes way beyond that.”
Some of those other reasons were answered in a survey circulated in July by the Maine Department of Labor, in which 2,600 respondents reported the barriers keeping them from returning to work.
The top barrier, listed by 34 percent of survey takers, was that there was a lack of opportunities that matched employees’ skillsets. Thirty-one percent of respondents said that COVID health risks or concerns were keeping them from re-entering the workforce.
Fifteen percent of respondents cited a lack of reliable child care.
One ray of optimism on the child care front is that the Down East Family YMCA, which oversees child care centers at the Moore Center on State Street and on Beechland Road, recently hired a few new staff members.
“We’re actually seeing people apply,” said Shauna Esposito-Caldwell, the center’s director of operations.
Once staff get trained and started, “[that] would allow us to start going to the waitlist and pulling families in,” she said.
For months, both centers, experiencing their own staffing shortages, were on an enrollment freeze.
Some businesses, including Wicked Munchies on High Street, have been fully staffed most of the year. When the take-out eatery needed to hire after some staff left for college, owner Travis Healey said he got 70 applicants for an open position.
“We didn’t have any trouble filling that position,” he said, and was able to bring in three new employees.
He credits the business’s low-stress environment for what keeps employees happy and returning to work. The public isn’t allowed inside, and employees deliver food to customers who wait outside.
The base pay is $14-$17 per hour and once tips are split evenly, wages work out to about $21-$26 per hour.
“I think as long as people pay a good wage for decent work, people are going to get applicants,” Healey said.