Labor shortages slam into rebounding tourism in Maine

BAR HARBOR, Maine — A busy tourist season is straining businesses that are running into new hurdles trying to find workers in the second summer of the pandemic.

Maine is seeing a surge in what some call “revenge tourism” — throngs of tourists determined to get out after a year trapped at home.

“The attitude is ‘I was cooped up all this time and hell or high water I’m getting out now,’ ” said Eben Salvatore, who runs a number of hotels in Bar Harbor and has seen record bookings this year after a lackluster 2020.

But meeting that demand is proving exceedingly difficult. The problems plaguing the U.S. hospitality industry are especially acute in Maine, where longtime workforce issues in the aging, low-population state are colliding with a rebound in tourism, leaving some businesses and their workers feeling like they’re on the verge of collapse.

Visitors are flocking to a state that has long been a vacation destination, one that has become even more appealing in recent months as travelers increasingly look to spend time outdoors and seek out locales with high vaccination rates and low case numbers.

“People thought when the restrictions were lifted that it was business as usual, but it just is not. I think the question is how long that will continue and it may be for a very long time,” said Matt Lewis, president of HospitalityMaine, which represents the state’s restaurant and hotel industry.

The state is still gathering data on its tourism season, but early signs show numbers are rebounding back to 2019 levels, a banner year for Maine that saw a record number of tourists.

For Acadia National Park alone, more than 150 miles up the coast from Portland, visits are up 112 percent for the first six months of the year compared to the same time last year — a figure that’s also 24 percent higher than the first half of 2019.

In some cases, businesses that are slammed have pleaded publicly for help, turning to workers who already have full time jobs to help fill out their staff.

Tammy Stinson, 53, already works five days a week cleaning at the Island Medical Center in Stonington and works overnight several times a week caring for an elderly woman with dementia.

But when the Harbor Cafe, also in Stonington, needed help to get through the summer tourist season, picking up one extra shift quickly became three each week.

Stinson walks in for her shift sporting a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt with “locals only” written above the cartoon characters, raising the eyebrows of fellow waitresses preparing for out-of-town patrons. One week this month she worked 95 hours between the three jobs, saying she took on the extra work because she didn’t want to see a community landmark fall.

On an island with just 3,000 year-round residents, the restaurant is one of the few all year options where you’re just as likely to find locals as tourists.

“I’ve known them all their life,” she says of two of the longtime waitresses who put out the call for help on Facebook.

“It’s because they’re friends, and this is a local restaurant, and it's been here forever, and I’d hate to see it close.”

Elizabeth Clough, who works full time at the restaurant and does landscaping on the side, is also feeling exhausted.

“It's hard to complain. The summer is when we make our money and that's when we want to work. But it’s just overwhelming this year,” she said.

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, has been picking up extra shifts at Casco Bay Lines, the ferry service that connects numerous islands near Portland to the mainland, reprising a job she had fresh out of college.

“It doesn't feel great working for any company when they don't have enough staff,” she said.

“When I saw they were looking for additional help, I love being on water, I loved that job when I was 22 years old. I loved the people I worked with, and I love the island community, and if I have a free weekend, a Saturday or Sunday that I can fill in, I’ll do it,” she said.

Still, some restaurants that have struggled to keep up with the pace and were unable to stagger shifts to give workers a break resorted to shutting their doors a couple of days a week.

“The biggest, most obvious signal is the fact that there are so many restaurants closed one and two days a week in July and August. And this is peak — this is that bread and butter time of year to make as much money as possible. So the last thing you want to do is close your doors when you have so many potential customers, but you do have to give staff some kind of break,” said Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

“That has been the most glaring signal to me that this year is much more severe.”

Some of the shortage is simply a numbers game. Maine’s population of 1.3 million can’t provide the workers necessary for figures that can swell more than 15 times that over the summer.

But the pandemic has added new complexities. As restaurants and other hospitality businesses scaled back during the pandemic, many of those workers looked for jobs elsewhere.

“With the pandemic people were sitting out for a while and not going back to work but they had to pay bills and other industries became compelling — senior living, banks, IT companies — jobs that often have good benefits,” Lewis of HospitalityMaine said.

Maine was also one of the states that shored up unemployment benefits by an extra $300 a week — a boost now coming to an end in early September.

Amid concerns that potential workers were sitting on the sidelines, the state in June began offering grants to supply new hires with a $1,500 signing bonus. The first-come, first-served $10 million program ended up extending its initial deadline into late August as funds remained.

“Some of the people who are on unemployment, they're not going to go back to be a chambermaid or a waitress — that's not what the job is that they had before — or a seasonal job wouldn't work for them anyway because they're trying to support a family year round,” said Rep. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeMaine businesses clamor for foreign workers to meet demand Labor shortages slam into rebounding tourism in Maine Congress can make progress on fighting emissions with Zero Food Waste Act MORE (D-Maine) who earlier this year introduced a bill to raise the number of seasonal foreign worker visas.

“There's just multiple reasons why just because we had high unemployment during the pandemic didn’t mean we had a pool of workers to draw on.”

Andrew Crawley, an economics professor at the University of Maine who has assisted the state’s Department of Labor in its employment analyses, said an aging population, college graduates eager to leave the state, and a mismatch in skills are all contributing factors to the labor shortage.

“There are numerous dynamics that have come into play. It’s been structural for a long time, and then COVID hit. And then it's just been another jolt to a labor market that has already been experiencing significant challenges,” he said.

But the confluence of issues is taking its toll on workers.

The state’s tourism office issued a warning on Facebook, telling visitors that “like everywhere else, the workforce shortage may mean fewer service providers at some of your favorite places. If you do find your wait is a bit longer, please be patient, kind, and understanding.”

Bo Jennings, the general manager of Side Street Cafe in Bar Harbor, said he’s witnessed staff at other restaurants quit on the spot after dealing with particularly upsetting customers.

But he’s hopeful the attention mental health got at this year’s Olympics with gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing will help people realize the pressures other workers are under.

“You're going to start seeing more and more of that where people go ‘You know what, it's not worth the 16 bucks an hour,’ ” Jennings said.

“If someone's going to walk away from a gold medal to protect their mental health, they're going to walk away from an hourly job to do the same.”

In Penobscot, Judy Astbury’s family has been running Bagaduce Lunch for more than 70 years out of one of the little wooden buildings that dot the coast serving up lobster rolls and the like.

The restaurant is situated in an idyllic spot, where the Bagaduce River starts to tumble into the Penobscot Bay, but a relaxing environment for customers has meant 12 and 14 hour days for Astbury and her husband.

She’s one of the restaurant owners who has had to close one day a week during the busy tourist season, though that usually means taking on secondary tasks for the business, like mowing the lawn and going to the bank.

“We started closing one day a week and it really helps,” she said.

“We just need a break. Money’s not everything. It helps — but it’s not everything.”

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