Daron Goldstein, owner of Povender Kitchen + Bar in Ellsworth, said it is difficult to find workers to hire. Credit: Courtesy of Povender Kitchen + Bar

Daron Goldstein received no applications after broadening the geography of his ads for kitchen help, even though he’s willing to pay more this year than previously.

The owner of Provender Kitchen + Bar in Ellsworth, Goldstein needs to hire an experienced line cook and someone with salad and dessert experience, and will pay up to $17 per hour, an amount he’s not paid to date.

“There’s no race for line cooks to come back to the restaurant industry,” he said. He thinks the lack of applicants reflects workers’ desire for a better work and life balance or their having found a position in a different industry that offers more benefits. The restaurant, open year-round, has 12 employees and didn’t have any pandemic-related layoffs..

He’s not alone.

Maine’s hospitality industry was especially hard hit by coronavirus restrictions, and it is short about 16,000 workers now, Steve Hewins, executive director of the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation, said. With more businesses able to reopen this summer, restaurants and hotels are expecting bustling business, but good help is hard to come by.

That is prompting HospitalityMaine to launch a new marketing campaign Wednesday that will include 60-second radio spots throughout Maine, pre-roll promotional videos of hospitality employees at work and ads on social media and online networks. The campaign, funded by $125,000 from the Maine Office of Tourism and Bangor Savings Bank, will run through June 4.

The industry group also will launch a website, Great Maine Comeback, on Wednesday where restaurants, hotels and tourism businesses can pitch jobs to potential employees, who can fill out contact information for desired jobs. So far, 200 companies have signed up to participate, Hewins said.

“It’s been an unbelievable problem getting people back to work,” Hewins said.

The target audience for the program is unemployed hospitality workers ages 15 to 65. Others being targeted are high school and college students and other unemployed people.

In a HospitalityMaine survey of 143 members in March, 138 businesses said they were looking to hire staff between now and May 31, and 127 businesses said they were interested in the new program. Most, or 122 businesses, said wages are higher than before the coronavirus pandemic. Most open jobs are in entry-level positions, though 46 businesses needed shift leaders or supervisors and 22 needed managers.

A “help wanted” sign hangs in a shop window in Portland on Tuesday April 27, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Goldstein said the shortages aren’t necessarily because those furloughed are getting more money on unemployment and federal benefits than they would if they worked, something other businesses cite for the workforce deficiency. He thinks it has more to do the nature of the restaurant jobs.

“They don’t want to work 15-hour days anymore,” he said. “I want them to work 8-hour days with two days off per week to make sure they have a life.”

The high cost and shortage of housing also is a problem, he said. Goldstein has five apartments over his restaurant, but they are all rented.

Goldstein said there’s a lot of pent-up demand among people whose travel was limited during the pandemic. Goldstein said campgrounds and inns in his area already are sold out and he sees lots of out-of-state license plates.

“We’re expecting even more people this summer than before the pandemic,” he said.

If he isn’t able to hire two more kitchen workers, he’ll make due. But he suspects seasonal businesses that hire lots of staff over the summer may have to limit services like lunch or close an extra day.

For Michael Briggs, managing director of the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, the dearth of temporary workers with H2-B or J-1 student visas has forced him to try to hire locally. The Department of Homeland Security said last week that it would approve 22,000 additional H2-B visas on top of the annual limit of 66,000 set by Congress, but it’s still not clear how many of those Maine will get.

Briggs said jobs like housekeepers, bussers and dishwashers are typically taken by people on visas. So far, Briggs has used newspapers, social media, Craigslist and word-of-mouth to attract local workers. He has filled about half of the 40 seasonal jobs so far.

Unlike Goldstein, he is getting applicants every day, but he still has a sizable gap to fill. The inn is paying entry-level workers like bussers and groundskeepers $13 per hour, slightly above the $12.15 state minimum. Experienced housekeepers or room attendants can negotiate higher wages. The inn also will offer J-1 visa workers a bonus so the students will stay through the tourism season rather than leave early.

He said he is confident about filling the remaining jobs, but he has a plan if he can’t.

“We have a team of well-versed and cross-trained employees, myself included,” he said. “If we learned anything from the pandemic in operating last summer, we have team members to do the job and do it well if there are any gaps.”