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Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
Businesses are hiring for all sorts of positions. The problem is, not nearly enough people are applying for them.
Welcome to the labor shortage, which is presenting its fair share of challenges to business owners and employees. Call the shortage the second right-hook in a one-two punch, following on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on businesses throughout 2020 and early 2021.
Take, for example, Harbor Candy Shop on Main Street in Ogunquit. There’s a sign in the front window, telling all who pass by that the place is hiring. Shop manager Colleen Osselaer said she currently has a staff of 26. Ideally, that number would be 35, like it was in summer 2019, before the pandemic.
“We’re not hoping to hit that number,” Osselaer said on Tuesday. “It’s unrealistic this year.”
Ashley Padget, the owner of Alisson’s Restaurant in Dock Square in Kennebunkport, is facing the same challenge. Alisson’s would be all set if she could just hire two line cooks and one dishwasher, Padget said Wednesday. She has advertised these openings everywhere, particularly online, including on Indeed, Facebook and Craigslist, since February.
“We’ve tried everything,” Padget said. “No response. It’s just crickets.”
In Sanford, staffing is fine right now at Smitty’s Cinemas, which has operated for months as the only open movie theater in York County. But Assistant Manager Manley Irish said the cinema is going to need more staff members once the summer blockbuster season truly kicks in — as it likely will do with the release of the latest “Fast and Furious” sequel this week — and extra showings are added earlier in the day.
Currently, the theater has a staff of roughly 40 employees, according to Irish. A full staff would be 60, he added.
“We’re hiring,” Irish said Tuesday. “We’re almost up to where we want to be, but right now we’re low. We have enough for what we’re doing, but not enough for what we want to do.”
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What’s going on?
Jessica Picard, the communications manager for the Maine Department of Labor, said the pandemic is one reason for the shortage.
“The pandemic tightened the labor market, but the issue is not a new one,” Picard said. “It has been challenging for Maine employers, particularly seasonal employers, to meet staffing needs in ordinary years. The pandemic has created additional barriers preventing some from connecting to the labor force in the same capacity that they were before the pandemic.”
Picard said those factors have included school closures and the shift to remote and hybrid learning models, child care needs, personal safety concerns, and fewer workers coming to Maine through visa programs, given that “some travel restrictions remain in place and the public health conditions vary in other countries.”
Back at the candy shop, Osselaer said she knows why there’s a labor shortage in Maine and elsewhere.
“It’s because the government keeps handing people money to stay home,” she said, referring to the state and federal funding that has been provided to individuals to help them meet assorted needs during the pandemic. “People are making more staying at home.”
Because of the pandemic, Congress approved an additional $300 per week in federal unemployment compensation and extended that program through Sept. 4, 2021. In many cases, Mainers can keep the $300 weekly federal add-on payment even while working part-time, according to the Maine Department of Labor.
Osselaer said she is not against such resources for individuals who truly need them — she recalled a time in her own life when she needed them — but there are people who “do not want to work for $13 or $14 an hour,” she said.
Padget ventured her own explanation about the shortage, particularly as it pertains to the dining industry. She said the pandemic has prompted people to reevaluate their lives and perhaps chart different professional courses.
“I think a lot of people have left restaurant work because it’s hard and stressful,” she said.
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Taking a national perspective, USA Today reporter Paul Davidson reported this month on workers who took themselves themselves out of employment consideration for another reason: they started their own businesses. Entrepreneurs have filed applications to launch their own businesses at a record pace since last summer.
Businesses scale back operations
Osselaer manages a second store, H&M Crumpets’, which is adjacent to the Harbor Candy Shop. The staff shortage is such that the store so far this year has had to remained closed some days.
“We had a beautiful day yesterday,” she said, referring to the weather on Monday, “but we were closed because we did not have the staff.”
Ossalaer said she gave her current staffers raises so they would not be making the same as new employees earn working their first day.
Ossalaer said the state’s new minimum wage is consequential as well.
“That has an economic impact,” she said.
In 2009, the minimum wage in Maine was $7.50 per hour, which was 25 cents higher than the federal minimum wage. Maine raised its minimum to $9 in 2017, $10 in 2018, $11 in 2019, and $12 in 2020, all while the federal minimum remained the same.
Maine raised its minimum wage again this year, to $12.15 per hour, based on inflation. The state’s current tip wage, or service employee minimum wage, is $6.08 per hour.
Padget said the shortage at Alisson’s is resulting in a lot of stress for her current employees, especially those in the kitchen. Currently, employees are averaging 50 hours a week.
“They’ve been incredible, the people who’ve stuck by us,” Padget said.
To mitigate overtime and make sure employees do not burn out, Alisson’s Restaurant has pulled back on its hours for food service. Typically, before the pandemic, the restaurant would stay open until midnight. But these days?
“We stop serving food at nine,” Padget said. “It’s been rough.”
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Padget said she is offering an extra $1 per hour for employees who continue working at the restaurant now through Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October. Fellow restaurant owners are trying similar measures to attract and maintain their workforces, she said.
“People are trying to be creative, but it’s not pulling in a pool of people,” she added.
Padget said she often hears people suggest restaurants and other businesses would have no problem hiring people if only they offered employees a “living wage.”
“I resent that,” she said. “I think restaurants care a lot more than that characterization (suggests). Good restaurants have always paid well and taken care of their employees.”
Padget said Alisson’s is offering pay between $18 and $25 per hour, with benefits, for year-round employment.
In Sanford, Irish said Smitty’s got tripped up by the labor shortage only once. The cinema, which doubles as a restaurant, had to cut off ticket sales during one night over the recent Memorial Day weekend because the limited staff on hand would not have been able to handle packed houses.
“If we had three more wait-staff and two more cooks that evening, we could have been all set,” Irish said.
Irish said the theater is currently scheduling employees for maximum hours and has no room for call-outs, such as workers calling in sick.
How widespread is the issue?
Picard said the labor department does not know exactly how many positions are available in the state, but she referred to Maine JobLink as one source of information.
There are 1,120 available positions in York County that are posted on Maine JobLink, according to Picard. The top five sectors are health care and social assistance (411 posts), the retail trade (142), the accommodations and food services industries (68), manufacturing (48), and transportation and warehousing (39).
“Job seekers have many options right now, and are being selective,” Picard said. “Some are choosing jobs based on wages, flexibility, et cetera. We are working with employers to promote the aspects of their jobs that may appeal to job seekers.”
Employers are able to list their open positions there for free. They are also able to indicate on the site that they are participating in the state’s new Back to Work grant program, which is offering funds to businesses to help them offer hiring bonuses to new employees who qualify.
The program offers a one-time payment to employers for eligible workers who start jobs this month or next. The payment is $1,500 for June 15-30 and $1,000 for July.
What struggling businesses can do
The Maine CareerCenters across the state have a variety of resources for businesses, according to Picard.
“They can help with hosting a hiring event, give tips on how to post attention-grabbing job postings, and connect an employer with thousands of job seekers on the newly updated Maine JobLink,” she said.
Employers registered with the JobLink can do a “reverse job search” of more than 3,400 resumes to identify matches by geography, skills, education, experience and more, Picard noted.
“In May, there were over 26,000 job seekers browsing the Maine JobLink,” she said.
The state also has an Employer Resource Guide online.
Picard said those interested in business services can reach out to the CareerCenter by email at MaineAtWork.DOL@maine.gov, by phone at (207) 623-7981, or through a LiveChat feature at MaineCareerCenter.gov.