Bartender Hayley Wilson mixes a drink at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in Portland. Credit: Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

For months now, Maine’s coastal towns have been packed with visitors — a welcome bounce-back for a hospitality industry that was reeling last year. But the return of tourists hasn’t been all good for restaurant workers, who said they’ve had to deal with contentious customers, some challenging health protocols such as mask and vaccine mandates.

The pressures of the pandemic have stressed many workers, and has others thinking about leaving the industry altogether.

Pouring a few drinks inside the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club — a Scandinavian-influenced bar a few blocks from the Portland waterfront — bartender Hayley Wilson said the job is great. She makes around $15 an hour, plus tips, and she likes making people happy.

“And that’s what we do every day, is tiny individual parties for people,” Wilson said. “I love the aspect of taking care of people.”

But while Wilson may love her job, she said the past 18 months have left her and other restaurant staff feeling exhausted.

Like many restaurants, the Hunt & Alpine Club was forced to shut down last year. And Wilson said after it reopened, she had to take on new responsibilities, as a makeshift bouncer enforcing mask mandates.

“We would have to stand in the doorway, and kind of use our bodies to block people from coming in who aren’t wearing masks,” she said. “And repeating the same thing over and over. And getting eye rolls, or frustration or aggression from it. It takes a toll on someone.”

Wilson said the pushback has only gotten worse over the past few weeks. With COVID-19 cases rising, the Hunt & Alpine Club instituted a new rule requiring that customers be vaccinated if they want to eat indoors.

Wilson is happy about the policy, saying that she feels a lot safer on the job. And she said while many customers have been understanding, others have pushed back. Some online have described it as “modern segregation,” and others have challenged staff about it at the door.

“And the language around that is, ‘Well, you don’t need to dine with us tonight. Come back another time,'” Wilson said.

“The hospitality industry has been notorious for long hours, low pay, no benefits, just not necessarily the greatest of work environments,” said Daryle Degen, who runs Maine Cater, a staffing and recruiting company for hospitality businesses in New England.

Degen said that while many restaurant owners are great bosses, last year’s shutdowns allowed workers to reconsider their options, and some moved into new industries altogether.

Now, Degen said many restaurants are desperate for help. His company currently has a waiting list of more than 100 businesses in Maine and New Hampshire looking for staff.

“And the shoe is now on the other foot,” he said. “Now it’s the jobseekers that have all the power. They are the ones that can dictate what they’re looking for in terms of rates of pay, and benefit packages.”

Restaurants have responded: some have cut back on their operating hours this summer, and several companies have announced plans to boost workers’ pay and benefits. But Degen said they will likely need to offer other kinds of perks, such as more paid time off, in order to attract enough staff moving forward.

“Something that’s a more family-friendly schedule, just something to appeal to people,” Degen said. “That might not necessarily mean huge, huge salaries. But just a better benefits package, or better package overall.”

And some workers say even bigger policy changes are needed, such as an increase to the federal minimum wage, and a hike to the lower, “tipped” minimum wage paid to workers, such as servers, who receive tips on the job.

Heather McIntosh, who works as a server in Portland, said improving pay and benefits would go a long way toward offering more financial security, at a time when housing costs are shooting up across the region.

“So pay people more, create a better work environment and people will come to work. I mean, it’s really simple,” McIntosh said.

HospitalityMaine CEO Matt Lewis said he has been heartened to see the industry largely rebound after a crippling 2020, but he believes that staffing issues could take the industry months or even years to resolve.

“What we’re talking about now is long-term solutions, like housing and transportation and child care, that are going to take some time to figure out a plan and a strategy to adapt to whatever this new normal is,” Lewis said.

And as the summer season comes to a close, Lewis is asking customers to be a bit more patient when they head out to eat. Because with restaurants and workers stretched thin, it may take a bit longer to get plates to the table.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.