Elisabeth Dean, owner of Fork & Spoon in Bangor, will close her restaurant for the month of September because of a labor shortage. "We've never closed down from COVID and now we are because we don't have enough workers," Dean said. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Elisabeth Dean did not sign up for the state’s offer of up to a $1,500 bonus to try to attract new employees.

The owner of the Fork & Spoon restaurant in Bangor said no one is applying, incentive or not, and she plans to close for the month of September. Some seasonal Maine restaurants have closed early this year amid staffing and supply shortages, with many in key tourism areas that are seeing heavy demand.

“You just keep getting beat up,” Dean said.

Dean is not alone in not signing up for the back-to-work program, one of about half a dozen similar incentive efforts in U.S. states. Only about 5 percent of the 7,500 people that the $10 million program could cover have been declared provisionally eligible. An extended deadline to file applications closes Friday.

Elisabeth Dean, owner of Fork & Spoon in Bangor, will close her restaurant for the month of September because of a labor shortage. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Some in the business community assert the payments are not enough to bring back workers. But others say the reasons for the program’s shortfall are complex, mirroring the broader challenges keeping people out of the workforce, including childcare and the resurging pandemic. A similar program in New Hampshire has seen more success, but the number of grants awarded there is still relatively small.

The $1,500 bonus for employees who work in their new job for at least eight weeks and meet other criteria equals about two weeks of unemployment pay. That likely is not enough for people to give up those benefits or get overworked employers to handle the extra paperwork the program entails, Steve Hewins, executive director of the industry group HospitalityMaine Education Foundation, said.

His estimates included the $300 weekly federal unemployment supplement, which ends in Maine on Sept. 4. Hewins said that extra money for unemployment has counteracted the bonus incentive to go back to work. Maine reinstated full work-search requirements for people receiving unemployment in May. Early data from academics shows ending benefits has not led to short-term job growth.

New Hampshire, which stopped the enhanced unemployment benefits in June, drew 700 applicants to its $1,000 return-to-work program in the first four weeks after it started on July 19 compared with the 400 Maine has attracted since mid-June. One major difference in the programs is Maine employers must apply for the bonus on behalf of employees and New Hampshire employees apply for it directly.

A help wanted sign hangs in the window of Fork & Spoon on Main Street in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“It’s not the silver-bullet solution to workforce issues across all sectors,” Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner of New Hampshire Employment Security, said. “It’s another tool for the state to use to try to get people back to work.”

The Maine Department of Labor is using multiple strategies to attract job seekers, including job fairs, workshops and reemployment services, Jessica Picard, a department spokesperson, said. The state added 13,700 jobs so far in 2021 and overall unemployment claims have been declining, with just over 7,900 continued claims for the week that ended Aug. 14, down 83 percent from a year ago, according to the Maine labor department.

Living Innovations, a regional company that supports people with disabilities and has 14 offices in Maine, offers its own $500 signing bonus. It signed up for the state program and attracted a few applicants for its 100 open jobs. The grant may have brought in a couple more people a week for interviews, but it did not seem to increase hiring much, Andrew Taranko, Maine state director of the company, said.

Elisabeth Dean, owner of Fork & Spoon in Bangor, will close her restaurant for the month of September because of a labor shortage. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Taranko cited day care shortages and pandemic concerns as barriers to hiring more people. Child care facilities are experiencing their own workforce shortages and are cutting back on hours. Some 27 million Americans need child care to be able to work, according to an NBC news analysis. Along with the child care shortages, some summer camps were closed or had limited hours.

“But I think that as we get closer to Labor Day and kids head back to school, people will return to employment,” Lavers said. “An additional financial incentive like the program can’t hurt.”

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...