No silver bullets for worker shortage

The Maine Department of Labor announced last week that it would tighten its work search requirements for those collecting unemployment beginning May 23.

During the pandemic, the state’s traditional work search requirements were relaxed and reasons for refusing work were broadened to include health concerns and the need to care for children. Now those who are unemployed will be required to actively look for work and risk losing their benefits if they refuse a reasonable job offer. The change also gives employers who have offered a job that has been refused the ability to report that individual to the state via an online form.

“Thousands of Maine people lost their jobs during the pandemic, through no fault of their own. Now it is our goal to get them back to work,” Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a release. “With vaccines more widely available, and with businesses reopened now and in need of help — especially with the busy tourism season approaching — we want people to rejoin the workforce, earn a living and aid in our state’s economic recovery.”

In Hancock County, like many tourist-driven parts of Maine, workers seem to be in short supply. Help wanted signs can be found in windows along High Street and beyond as business owners scramble to figure out how to appropriately staff for what is shaping up to be a busy summer.

With COVID-19 vaccines now widely available and many schools, including Ellsworth, resuming full in-person instruction, the time is right to encourage the unemployed to re-enter the workforce.

But is reinstating full job search requirements a silver bullet for the worker shortage? Sadly, no.

There will still be individuals who only go through the motions of a job “search.” But the bigger issue is there just are not enough workers, especially for seasonal work. 

As of March, Maine’s unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, down from a record 9 percent in April 2020. Many people have returned to the workforce, but not equally in all sectors. In sectors where wages are low and benefits are scarce, workers have been slow to return. For them, enhanced unemployment benefits are likely more attractive than minimum wage. When they do go back to work, employers who offer better pay and year-round opportunities will likely win out.

Businesses have had to curtail hours and days open as they’ve worked to find the right balance between demand and staffing. With a short summer season, every dollar counts, and having to close an establishment due to a lack of staffing when demand is high is a recipe for disaster. Customers may have to lower their expectations when there are not enough employees to serve them.  

Tightening unemployment rules is a necessary step for the state to re-energize its workforce, but the real work to address the seasonal shortage is still to come.

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