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

Tourism took a big hit in Maine during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. But this summer could be different: many Americans are newly vaccinated against the virus and eager to enjoy the state’s rugged charms.

But there’s a big question hanging over this tourism season: will Maine have enough workers to serve up all the lobster rolls, craft beer and other attractions that normally draw so many visitors here?

The state’s hospitality industry is one of several that have struggled to find workers this spring, so much so that Gov. Janet Mills just launched a program providing cash bonuses to some Mainers who start jobs between now and July.

Now, “Help Wanted” signs are ubiquitous at dining establishments from Ogunquit to Bar Harbor, and also in some inland destinations, and many places have had to cut back their operating hours and offer extra incentives to their workers.

Even before 2020, Maine restaurants had trouble staffing up during the busy summer months, but the pandemic has particularly strained them.

During the first few months of the crisis, pretty much all restaurants closed entirely.

Many reopened in a limited fashion, sometimes with more outdoor dining or takeout, and also with the help of state and federal relief payments. But they weren’t at full capacity, so many workers got laid off.

Now that coronavirus restrictions have been lifted and business is returning, restaurants are crunched to refill all those jobs. The state’s hospitality industry had an estimated 16,000 unfilled positions as of this spring, according to the trade group HospitalityMaine.

Making Do With Less

As a result, they’ve had to make some tricky business decisions — and ask customers to be patient as they work through the challenges.

For example, on Little Cranberry Island, the Islesford Dock Restaurant & Gallery hasn’t been able to reopen for lunch because it can’t find enough workers, owing in part to a lack of housing on the island, according to owner Michael Boland.

Portland Pie Company, a craft pizza chain with locations from Biddeford to Bangor, is relying more heavily this year on a program that provides bonuses to employees who refer their friends for jobs. Jeff Perkins, owner and CEO, said it’s been hard finding experienced candidates for all types of positions, from cooks to servers and delivery drivers.

“It’s been challenging in every area,” Perkins said. “It’s a grind. Every day, we’re talking about how to get fully staffed.”

Governor’s Restaurant and Bakery, a Maine-based chain of family restaurants, has mostly been able to staff up its inland locations — such as in Bangor and Old Town — as it’s shifted more of its business to take out.

But its Ellsworth restaurant, which is a stone’s throw from Acadia National Park, still hasn’t reached normal summer staffing levels. Now, it’s closing an hour early each night, even though that means losing key business from diners driving off Mount Desert Island, according to director of operations Jason Clay.

“We’re pretty much market average when it comes to wages down there,” said Clay, who has had to work in the Ellsworth kitchen when staff were out.

“We’re just not even getting applications in general because there’s a lack of workforce. Everybody that wants to work in that area is working. And that’s something — every summer that’s a challenge down there, but it’s really unprecedented this year.

‘Lots of decisions people are juggling’

There’s no single explanation for why people aren’t rushing back to an industry that — along with lodging establishments — normally generates an estimated $7 billion in annual revenue in Maine.

During an interview last week on Maine Calling, state labor Commissioner Laura Fortman cited a couple reasons, including a lack of child care for potential workers and the fear that some Mainers may still have about contracting COVID-19.

Add to that a lack of transportation and affordable housing in many places, and the general burnout that some former workers now feel about the high stress and historically low pay of restaurant work.

“It just doesn’t provide for the workers in a way that’s feasible to live,” said Lucy Henderson, who spent years working as a server and lost her job at a Portland restaurant, Little Giant, during the pandemic.

At 34, Henderson said she was tired of the “toxic” work culture that could encourage going weeks without a day off, and instead she decided to go into an adjacent industry — wine distribution — with more regular hours.

Another contributor to the staffing shortage is that Maine had 24,000 temporary foreign workers in the summer of 2019, but many haven’t returned because of various federal restrictions.

And then there’s the expanded unemployment benefits: Congress has approved an extra $300 per week as part of its COVID-19 response, and Maine is also offering extra assistance in amounts that are based on someone’s previous earnings.

Republicans and many businesses say that those expanded benefits are dissuading some people from going back to work.

Last week, Labor Commissioner Fortman said they might be playing a limited role.

“For some people, the enhanced benefits may factor into their thinking, but I do not think that that’s a primary reason. I think it’s a complicated situation, and there are lots of decisions people are juggling,” Fortman said during the Maine Calling interview.

Higher Wages, Higher Prices

Besides limiting their operations, many restaurants have also been offering higher wages, bonuses, paid vacation and other incentives to get new workers in the door. And they’ve had to raise their prices to afford those and other steeper operating costs.

Some have argued that this is a necessary correction, and that restaurants should have been paying workers more all along. The minimum wage is $12.15 for most of Maine, but about $6 for tipped employees.

Andrew and Briana Volk, who own the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, a Scandinavian-themed restaurant and cocktail bar, have been vocal advocates of raising the minimum wage.

During the pandemic, they bumped starting pay to $15 for their front-of-house staff and $18 in the kitchen. That’s on top of paid time off, subsidies for health insurance and a farm CSA, and other benefits.

Now, Andrew Volk says that they’ve gotten many applications for open positions as they ramp operations back up this spring.

“It’s definitely hard to find staff if you’re offering ’em five bucks an hour,” he said. “If you offer them three times as much and you subsidize their health care premiums like we do, you get staff. It’s not rocket science.”

Even with the relatively high wages, the Volks note that it can be hard for their workers to afford housing near their jobs or in a place with a reliable form of public transportation.

“People can’t even live outside of town… without depending on a car, which makes a huge difference for people in what opportunities they can even seek for themselves,” Briana Volk said.

However, others in the industry say that what works in Portland might not translate in other parts of the state such as Ellsworth, which have smaller workforces and consumers who may not be as willing to pay a premium for their meals.

Back-to-Work Experiment

Under the program that Mills just announced, the state will use federal funding to award one-time payments of $1,500 to some workers who recently received unemployment benefits and start jobs in June, then $1,000 if they start in July.

The Maine Department of Labor has launched an online portal where employers can verify that their workers qualify for the program and submit the necessary documentation.

Members of the hospitality industry have welcomed the help, but they’re not yet sure how much of a difference it will make.

Steve Hewins, an executive director with HospitalityMaine, said that it’s a short-term solution to a challenge that will be with Maine for years to come.

“This is just the short summer of ’21 problem,” he said. “The long-term plan is really where we’re going to have to work with the state and other areas like education to really develop a long term pathway to create new workers in this industry.”

He added, “We just can’t go through this every year. It’s going to be a problem that isn’t going to go away unless we find a way out of it.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.