Visitors walk on a busy sidewalk, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Bar Harbor. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Ron Hall expects an active tourism season in Maine, with summer camps opening fully throughout the state and many already completely booked.

It is a marked difference from last year, when most camps opened but were at 80 percent capacity. In 2020, only 25 of the 140 boys and girls camps belonging to Maine Summer Camps were open and operating at only half capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Problems are lingering despite strong demand from campers. Hall, executive director of the nonprofit group, said he still expects that camps will be able to hire only half of the 3,400 short-term foreign workers they normally get. They are not alone.

Visas granted to overseas students working in Maine for about four months are a key part of the workforce at Maine campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, amusement parks and national parks throughout the tourism season, which is expected to be even better this year after a strong recovery in 2021. Experts expect a shortfall in those J-1 visas to affect most of them.

J-1 workers, along with the longer term H-2B visa holders, normally make up about 10 percent of the hospitality summer workforce. Travel restrictions that caused a precipitous drop in the number of visa workers in 2020 have largely ended, but slow processing at embassies and the war in Ukraine are dampening the number of J-1 visa holders, leaving many Maine businesses to cobble together strategies such as higher pay and housing offers to attract domestic workers.

“I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy about the worker situation,” Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the industry group HospitalityMaine, said. “We’re still light about 30,000 employees in the state.”

Funtown Splashtown is expecting a strong summer after doing better than expected last year, General Manager Cory Hutchinson said. He expects to have 88 J-1 visa workers, double the number of last year, but still off of pre-pandemic levels of more than 100. Hiring local workers also is proving hard. 

The Saco amusement park plans a rolling opening starting with Funtown on May 28 for limited days and adding Splashtown on June 18. The park will close earlier each day as well, so Hutchinson only needs one shift of workers instead of two. That will pare off about 100 workers from the usual payroll of 500.

A recovery to pre-pandemic levels may be far off. Maine had 59 percent fewer J-1 visas in 2021 compared to 2019, according to a national poll by the Alliance for International Exchange, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy group focused on education and cultural exchange.

Nationally, J-1 visas were down 63 percent compared with 2019. As a result, 60 percent of businesses lost revenue and 90 percent fell short of staffing needs. In Maine, the 26 businesses surveyed reported total losses of $5.9 million, roughly $226,962 per business.

Part of the problem is that embassies are still getting back online after shutting down or cutting staff early in the pandemic. Dugal said most businesses will be short-staffed with only between 60 and 80 percent of the people they need and will have to make decisions based on having a shortfall. That could hurt the smaller businesses most because even one person getting sick could trigger a temporary closure.

Finding housing for visa holders also is a challenge. Hutchinson said Funtown Splashtown has 64 of its own housing units and has arranged for 24 more to accommodate all foreign workers. They pay for housing, and make the same wage as domestic hires, with the starting wage raised to $16 per hour this year. Housing is in short supply in southern Maine, curbing the number of people who can be hired.

The situation has prompted governors, including Maine’s Janet Mills, to sign a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to prioritize processing of J-1 visas. The letter still is being circulated for signatures. It emphasizes the benefits of the visas to state economies, especially to seasonal businesses.

Even with the J-1 shortfall in 2022, more workers are expected than last year, giving some relief to businesses, said Phil Simon, vice president of professional exchange programs at CIEE, a South Portland nonprofit that sponsors J-1 visas.

“We are one part of the picture,” Simon said. “Domestic recruitment is challenging.”

Scott Shelton, general manager at Hampton by Hilton in Bar Harbor, is recruiting staff nationally to cast a broader net. He expects to get up to 10 J-1 visa workers, a key part of his 60 staff members he is on track to have this summer.

At Abel’s Lobster in Bar Harbor, owner Mandy Fountaine hopes to get five H-2B visa workers on her first attempt to use visa workers, but with high demand, she does not expect to get any.

She needs extra workers this year as she opens a second restaurant this spring. She is using referral bonuses, better wages and limited housing to attract domestic workers. But with so many businesses looking for workers, she expects most of them won’t be fully staffed.

If Fountaine can’t get enough workers, she may have to repeat what she did last summer at Abel’s, when she cut back to being open only four days per week.

“When I say I need 100 workers, I could probably use 120,” she said. “But 100 is what I need as a minimum.”