Labor shortage impacting local tourism industry

Fri, 06/04/2021 - 10:30am

    In February 2020, Alex and Maria Nikolic bought Harborage Inn in Boothbay Harbor and looked forward to a robust tourist season. In March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and curtailed any hopes they had of a profitable first season. But times have changed, and 2021 looks like a great season. Alex Nikolic reports the tourist season is off to a strong start. “We were booked solid for our first weekend in April, and our first two months have been strong,” he said.

    Like most tourist business owners, the Nikolics have the help wanted sign out. In past seasons, finding enough labor has been the most challenging aspect of tourist businesses. But this year, it’s close to impossible as a nationwide labor shortage is impacting both tourist and non-tourist businesses. For years, the local tourism industry has relied on international workers, but the lingering effects of the pandemic have made it hard for those workers to enter the country. 

    The Nikolics searched for two months for three workers. Alex Nikolic believes he will have his three employees by mid-June after seeking employees in traditional ways of placing an ad in the Boothbay Register, and social media platforms like Facebook and Indeed. “It was harder than expected. I can’t imagine being a large resort needing to employ 200 people. If we don’t find workers, we can make do, but larger places can’t,” he said. 

    Robinson’s Wharf in Southport is one of those larger operations struggling to find enough labor. General Manager Rachel Leeman reports the business has enough waitstaff and bartenders, but not enough line cooks. The shortage is so severe, Robinson’s Wharf is reducing its operating hours. The restaurant opened April 13 and is open Wednesdays through Mondays. “Our season started better than it ever has,” Leeman said. “But due to the labor shortage we are closed one day per week.”

    Leeman is seeking employees through Facebook and Indeed, a website promoting thousands of job listings; prospective employees can apply online. From Indeed, Robinson’s Wharf has received two employment inquiries. Leeman believes, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to lessen, her vacant jobs will fill. “It’s getting better. We had applicants from California and Florida, and I’m very excited about that.”

    Sisters Alison and Liz Evans are also feeling the labor crunch. Alison Evans operates Ae Ceramics in Boothbay Harbor and Liz Evans operates East Boothbay General Store. Alison Evans employs one full-time and two part-time workers. Ae Ceramics hasn’t struggled with the labor shortage as much as other businesses because she provides special perks to attract workers. One perk is seasonal housing. Another was an airline ticket. She hired her cousin who lived in Ireland. “She’s an American who can’t get vaccinated or work in Ireland. So I offered to buy her airline ticket. All I asked was she give me three mornings a week, and she could wait tables the rest of the time and make a lot more money,” Alison Evans said. Ae Ceramics also offers competitive pay and benefit for full-time employees. “We don’t do much advertising for employees. We rely pretty much on word of mouth and I really haven’t had much trouble in the past finding employees.”

    Ae Ceramics is closed on Sundays mainly to allow employees a day off, according to Alison Evans. 

    The labor shortage is so severe for her sister, East Boothbay General Store was closed the entire Memorial Day weekend for the first time in her 14-year tenure. She uses one word to describe the current labor shortage: “Brutal.” She understand the labor pool is reduced due to lack of international workers, but she also thinks the state’s unemployment eligibility requirements also play a role. “I just want to sit down and cry every day. It’s been challenging, and worse than I’ve ever seen. The problem is compounded by international workers not being vaccinated. There has to be a way to make that happen,” she said. A federal unemployment bonus payment of $600 weekly began on April 16, 2020 and expired July 31, 2020. The bonus was replaced with a $300 weekly bonus which expires Sept. 6.

    Several local business owners believe the bonus deters people from returning to work. “I think too many people enjoy staying home collecting unemployment. That’s part of it,” Liz Evans said. Her store is usually open seven days a week. This summer, the store is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

    Ted Hugger agrees with Liz Evans about the unemployment payment working against employers. He owns two Midcoast inns. Hugger is also an Edgecomb selectman. He spoke to State Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, during an April selectmen’s meeting about the labor crisis. Leading up to tourist season, Hugger spoke to other Midcoast tourist businesses who all reported a dearth of applicants.  So he told Stover about the industry’s predicament. “In the past three months, none of us has had a single person submit a resume or call about a job,” he said. “We’re at the point where we may have to scale back our services due to a lack of staffing,” he said. 

    Hugger asked Stover to ask if the Department of Labor tracked weekly unemployment claims to make sure recipients were seeking work. On June 1, Stover told the Boothbay Register the Department of Labor had strict rules on unemployment insurance. “If they don’t file a claim, then they don’t receive a check. If they refuse a job, then they also lose their unemployment compensation,” she said. “It’s always been difficult to find hospitality industry workers. This year, it’s worse due to COVID-19, and a lack of housing for both seasonal and year round workers are factors.”

    Hugger is one of many businessmen facing the prospect of scaling back his operation due to the labor shortage. He needs three more workers at Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb and four at Cedar Crest Inn in Camden. He reports two new international workers are on their way. “They received their VISAs May 31, and should be in Camden by mid-June,” he said. But if Hugger can’t hire a full compliment of workers, he will reduce services. Stover has assisted Hugger and other Midcoast businesses in connecting with Maine Department of Labor to match employers with employees.

    So with all the state assistance, what are the prospects of employers like Hugger finding enough labor? “Not zero,  but it’s close to zero,” Hugger said.  “You see the help wanted signs everywhere up and down Route 1. Restaurants are operating only two to three days per week. (Maine is) setting us up for another failure which is having a profound impact on the entire tourism industry. Two years in a row.”

    One local business not impacted by the labor shortage is Brady’s Pub in Boothbay Harbor. The pub is closed on Sunday nights and Mondays. Owner Jen Mitchell says the closure is by design. Her entire crew returns each season so she has no labor problems. Even though Mitchell received inquiries about Fourth of July reservations, she declined them because it fell on a Sunday evening. “Just can’t do that to my staff. They work hard and need time off,” she said. 

    The Boothbay Region Job Fair is from noon to 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 15 at Sherman Field at Boothbay Region High School. The event is free and open to all employers and job seekers. Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce and Maine Department of Labor are sponsoring it, with help from Boothbay Region YMCA and other local supporters.