By Wanda Curtis
When the stay-at-home order was in effect at the beginning of the pandemic, many businesses closed. Maine Department of Labor’s Deputy Director for the Center for Workforce Research Glenn Mills reports that nearly 95,000 jobs were lost during March and April 2020, but about 68,000 jobs have been gained since then. However, he said the state still remains 26,900 jobs short of the February 2020 level.
According to Mills, the majority of the decrease in jobs occurred in three sectors: leisure/hospitality, state/local governments and healthcare/social assistance. He reported that about half the decrease in the healthcare/social assistance industries was in social assistance functions, such as child care, individual and family services, nursing care facilities and assisted living facilities.
Mills explained that the decrease in healthcare/social service industries included not only doctors and nurses, but also CNAs, managers, accountants, accounts receivable clerks, janitors, maintenance workers, IT staff, childcare workers, social workers, home health aides, chief executives and human resource staff. He said there was no one reason why jobs decreased in that sector during the early months of the pandemic.
Maine Businesses Face Ongoing Challenges
President/CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corporation Lee Umphrey said the pandemic ravaged small businesses across Maine and has created “extraordinary ongoing challenges” for all Maine businesses. He said the pandemic caused many business owners to reevaluate their operations and service delivery models to ensure survival. Despite those efforts, many businesses were forced to close.
“There was great uncertainty, especially in the early days, about the severity and spread of the COVID-19 virus,” said Umphrey. “To curb the public health crisis, businesses and communities had to adapt to restrictions including mandated shut-downs, masking, social distancing and vaccinations. While challenging to the workflow for every business, these changes eventually encouraged expansion, flexibility and innovation. Still, the pandemic exacerbated problems in finding workers and reliable supply chains while facing rising costs.”
According to Umphrey, Maine businesses who survived did so by grit and resolve. He added that the collective resilience and determination of Maine businesses was recognized with federal pandemic relief programs approved by Congress. He noted that many of the businesses which survived were recipients of some kind of pandemic aid.
“The expansion of unemployment benefits to aid workers and the paycheck protection program (PPP) for businesses are two great examples of survival tools during the darkest hours,” said Umphrey.
In regard to the current state of affairs, he said the owners of Maine businesses have become more nimble, mostly with an expanded online presence to sell goods and services with better overall promotional efforts. He said many had to create or advance an online presence to reach their customers and pay bills. Restaurants adapted by creating outdoor seating and curbside pickup or delivered meals. Other businesses, he said, changed their product line to meet changing demands caused by the pandemic.
Critical Partnership Between Federal, State and Maine Communities
Looking back, Umphrey believes the partnership between the federal government, the State of Maine and Maine’s communities was essential in offsetting what could have been an even more devastating impact by the pandemic. He said Maine businesses will continue to face challenges but the resolve and recovery will be strong because of the work ethic of the owners of Maine businesses and the willingness of the State of Maine “to make targeted investments of federal funds to promote a full and sustainable economic recovery.” He added that some investments, like Broadband for everyone, will promote prosperity and engagement in parts of the state which need a boost.
Communications Manager for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Jennifer Geiger said Maine DECD awarded $273,000,000 of recovery funds to Maine businesses impacted by the pandemic. She said the funding was targeted to relieve business losses in the hardest hit sectors.
Pandemic’s Effects on Workplace Behaviors May Become Permanent
President/CEO of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce Deb Neuman predicts the effects of the pandemic on businesses and employers will be permanent. She said that not all of the changes brought about by the pandemic were negative.
“On the positive side, businesses most affected by the pandemic had to innovate and create new ways to reach and protect customers,” said Neuman. “For many businesses, those changes have worked well and continue to be part of their business model post-pandemic. Remote work and virtual meetings are likely here to stay. As a result, we are seeing new residents choosing to live in Maine because they can now work from anywhere.”
Maine’s Shrinking Workforce
In addition to finding new ways to reach and protect customers, Neuman noted employers also had to find new ways to recruit, train and retain workers as the pandemic negatively impacted Maine’s already shrinking workforce.
“A shrinking workforce was a pre-pandemic challenge but the pandemic fueled the situation as school children went to remote learning, access to affordable and quality childcare became increasingly difficult for families, concerns about exposure to the virus at work and employers cutting their workforce to survive the pandemic have contributed to these challenges,” said Neuman. “In addition, the pandemic caused a lot of people to reassess their lives and work. Some chose to find new jobs, change careers or retire earlier than they had planned.”
According to Geiger, some employers responded to changing worker needs by increasing wages, offering flexible and remote work opportunities, and investing in worker training. Other employers, she said, have sought to employ workers who are often under-represented in Maine’s workforce such as persons with disabilities, those involved with the justice system, or those in recovery.
“The Department of Labor can assist employers in employing historically marginalized communities with programs such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, Bureau of Rehabilitation Services employer resources and more,” Geiger said.
A Changing Work World
Earlier this year, Jessica Picard, Communications Manager for Maine DOL, said the work world is changing for both employers and employees. “Like workers in states across the nation and in countries around the globe, Maine people are in the midst of a monumental shift in how, when and where they work, a shift accelerated by a global health crisis,” Picard said.
Slow But Steady Growth In Some Industries
Although the State of Maine still remains 26,900 jobs short of the February 2020 level, Mills said there were job gains between November 2020 and November 2021 in the leisure and hospitality industry (4%), professional and business services (3.1%), other services (9.3%), retail trade (2.2%), wholesale trade (8.1%), transportation and warehousing (7.6%), and manufacturing (2.1%).
“Around the state, the Portland/South Portland metro area added 5,600 jobs (up 2.8%), the Bangor metro area added 1,700 jobs (up 2.7%), the Lewiston-Auburn metro area added 900 jobs (up 1.9%), and the balance of the state (outside the three metro areas) added 2,800 jobs (up 1%),” Mills said.
In regard to the hospitality industry, interesting to note is the fact that rural areas in Maine saw more significant growth in tourism during the summer of 2020 than more populated areas. Geiger reported that Maine Office of Tourism tracking data shows Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Penobscot and Washington counties experienced double digit increases in visitation during that time period.
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