ELLSWORTH — It’s shaping up to be a potentially record-breaking season in terms of the number of visitors who will flock to and through hot spots like Ellsworth, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.
But as the state lifts restrictions to allow greater numbers inside restaurants, retail stores and events and relaxes quarantine guidelines for visitors, an employee shortage poses a challenge to a smooth season. While this is not a new concern — employers scramble every summer to hire servers, cleaners, cashiers and the like — this summer could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
“The fact that we’re hearing so many Airbnb cottages and campgrounds are booked is really concerning to this area with the lack of employees,” said Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Gretchen Wilson. “[Business owners] call and they’re like, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’”
Eve Young is manager of the Comfort Inn on High Street, and she said a busy summer is ahead. Her reservations for March and April were higher than in 2019. “And from what I’ve been hearing from hotels in Bar Harbor, their reservations are way ahead.”
She said staffing is the biggest challenge for area lodging establishments. “I’m hoping that our clientele, our guests, are going to be somewhat patient because I think we’re just not going to be able to deliver the kind of service we’re aiming to.”
Influencing the employee shortage are COVID-19 concerns and enhanced unemployment benefits, but other factors come into play, such as housing and wages. Housing that used to be rented to summer workers is now being used as income properties, Wilson said. And she has watched wages advertised on job boards rise.
“You see them going from $12 or $13 [per hour] to $15 and above trying to get employees,” Wilson said, with bonuses and incentives also on offer in the competitive summer job market.
Summer staffing takes long-range planning, Flexit Café and Bakery owner Paul Markosian said, with some larger employers securing employee housing as a means to recruit summer workers, something smaller businesses cannot manage.
“I’m getting the sense we’re going to get an extraordinary number of visitors this year,” he said, and restaurants and diners will likely need to adapt with fewer workers. “There’s a lot of things you can do. You can reduce hours and days of operation. You can streamline your menu so there’s not as many options.”
The need for reservations, long waits and that some visitors may arrive from states that have long relaxed pandemic guidelines, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, may all have a negative effect, Wilson said. “Restaurants are saying the experience is not going to be good this summer. They’re very worried.”
Helen’s is already seeing an uptick in business, owner Melanie Scott said, as is Provender’s, according to chef and owner Daron Goldstein. Both said they are already seeing numbers typical of July and August.
“Staffing is definitely an issue,” Scott said. “I have a very good foundation with my staff, but you always need to bring in [seasonal] people. Those people just aren’t there this year.” The answer? “We have done nothing yet other than we’ve all worked a lot harder.”
Scott said applicants call but do not show up for interviews or, if hired, do not show up for their first day of work. “Basically, what’s happening is they’re using you as a name and reference to satisfy their unemployment claims.”
Goldstein echoed that. “It’s a combination of things. Some people are still on unemployment and for some people there’s no rush to get back to restaurant work.”
Goldstein is still trying to fill two positions, and he feels for seasonal establishments that need to hire an entire staff. “It’s a very difficult time, and what a shame it’s going to be for the area. We’re going to have an epic season and there’s not going to be anybody to work. People will come up for vacation and not have the best experience because all these places aren’t ready.”
Meanwhile, programs that bring in seasonal foreign workers and college students, while no longer paused, are not a big help in the Northeast, Wilson said, because application and start dates do not match up well with business needs. And travel restrictions may keep European students out of the U.S.
Wilson, along with Mount Desert Chamber of Commerce Director Micki Sumpter, are referring business owners to resources such as Maine Tourism Staffing Solutions, a nonprofit agency that places direct hires in hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses.
“People are pushing on the doors,” Wilson said. “People consider Maine a safe place. It’s spread out, the national park, all of those things that say this is a good place, this is a safe place, we can drive there. It’s very attractive.”