Summer Squeeze

Restaurant

A sudden paucity of waitstaff, hosts, and housekeepers has Maine’s hospitality industry feeling the heat this year.

By Jesse Ellison


It felt like a bad omen that, at the Maine Office of Tourism’s annual industry conference, a late-season snowstorm forced labor commissioner Jeanne Paquette to drop out of a discussion on the conference’s main theme, workforce development. An innocuous-sounding topic, but just the thought of “workforce development” can give innkeepers cold sweats nowadays. Considering that tourists spent almost $6 billion in Maine last year, 6 percent more than the year before, generating some $600 million in tax revenue, the tenor of the MOT event should have been jolly. Instead, a pall hung over the roomful of restaurateurs and hotel owners, because even as business has surged, the supply of seasonal workers has dwindled. Hardly anyone in the tourist trade can hire enough waitresses, hosts, or housekeepers for the busy summer months.

One conference attendee, Sarah Diment, who’s run Ogunquit’s Beachmere Inn for 22 years, said she just found out she wouldn’t be able to hire foreign workers to fill the nine additional housekeeping positions she was counting on this summer. “I literally could get sick,” she said. “I have no idea what to do. I’m trying to figure out what to do for the next few weeks in terms of supporting the housekeeping I have. I’m just worried they’re going to walk out.”

Unemployment rates have reached all-time lows, which is good news — unless you’re a short-staffed business owner who suddenly finds the stock of potential hires nearly empty.

She’s already decided to temporarily shutter one of her resort’s buildings for a month — forgoing up to $20,000 in room sales — but her staffing deficit is bigger than that. On the day of the MOT conference, Diment had just had a phone call with another hotel owner who faced a shortage of 16 summer employees.

“I’m trying not to sound all doom and gloom,” she said, “But we’re in a position now where Maine is growing the industry by 6 percent over the year before. If you can’t support that business, it does you absolutely no good. You’re selling an experience. If the experience can’t be supported by people to do the jobs, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

The seasonal worker shortage has been getting worse for years. Maine’s population is aging fast, and every year, far more people retire than join the workforce. Macroeconomics are making matters worse. Unemployment rates here and nationwide have reached all-time lows, which is good news — unless you’re a short-staffed business owner who suddenly finds the stock of potential hires nearly empty. And this year, the labor shortage is hitting full-fledged crisis level because of changes to the federal H-2B visa program, which allows foreign workers to do seasonal jobs in the U.S. when an employer can’t find domestic candidates.

The H-2B program was how Diment had planned on recruiting her nine additional housekeepers, and it’s a system many in the hospitality business have come to rely on. Nationwide, the program allows for 66,000 new temporary-work visas annually. Maine alone needs 38,000 summer workers, according to Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz, second only to Alaska in that regard. In the past, returning workers — those who had previously received an H-2B visa — didn’t count against the quota. Last year, 119,000 workers actually came to the U.S. under the program, almost double the cap. Then, this winter, Congress passed a stopgap funding bill that excluded the returning-worker provision. Soon after, worried about the impact on Maine, senators Susan Collins and Angus King authored a joint letter urging the Department of Homeland Security to audit the program, to see if any open slots had gone unaccounted. “Combined with the low unemployment rate in the state,” Collins and King wrote about the new rules, “the effect could be catastrophic for Maine’s businesses.” But current political winds don’t seem friendly to an effort to bring more foreign workers to the U.S., and House Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan have faced criticism from their conservative base for past support of the H-2B returning-worker provision. Even if one of several proposed fixes did pass Congress this session, it will likely come too late for employers to staff up for peak season.

Last year, outfits up and down the coast were understaffed by 10 to 15 percent, says Greg Dugal, lobbyist for both the Maine Innkeepers and the Maine Restaurant associations. A hotel in Boothbay Harbor, for instance, had to shut down two months early because it didn’t have enough employees. A restaurant in Yarmouth closed on Saturdays for the same reason. This summer is bound to be worse, Dugal says. “It’s a perfect storm of everything happening at once.”

Allyson Cavaretta owns Meadowmere Resort, just off Route 1 in Ogunquit. She says that even at the height of the recession, when unemployment had skyrocketed, she typically only got two or three applications for 15 summer job openings. Her hotel — unlike many — is open all year, enabling her to employ a core local staff, but she can’t get enough summer help without the visa program. The H-2B process requires lots of paperwork, various bureaucratic approvals, and proof that it’s impossible to hire a domestic applicant. It also requires money. “For every petition you file, it’s thousands of dollars,” Cavaretta says. “And then there are costs associated with recruiting, with flights. It adds up to tens of thousands of dollars each year. But without it, businesses would lose millions each year.”

Cavaretta barely managed to line up her summer staff just before the national visa quota was filled this year, but many of her neighbors haven’t been so lucky. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” she says. Her brother owns a restaurant in town, and she says he’ll have to choose which nights to close so that he and other restaurants can share staff. “The ramifications multiply quickly,” she says. “How great of a vacation will you have if it feels like a ghost town? Would you come back? There are some real, tangible problems that will be here by Memorial Day without a solution.”

One proposed long-term solution to the local labor deficit is to encourage more immigrants to settle in Maine.

Two years ago, when David Witham took over Witham Family Hotels and its nine Bar Harbor properties from his father, he wanted to reduce the company’s reliance on foreign staff. Even when the visa program works, he says, it doesn’t always work well. Last year, processing hiccups delayed the arrival of many of his workers until the season was well underway. “We dug through it,” Witham says, sighing. “We dug down deep. It’s not the way I’d like to run the business the whole season. Last year, the staff was burned out by the Fourth of July, and that’s when we’re supposed to be getting geared up. It was a very long year.”

But Witham says he’s still scratching his head at how to actually change up his hiring. “I would much rather get as many locals as possible,” he says. “But when demand is high and all you can offer is seasonal work, it’s hard.” Back when locals were hard-pressed for jobs, they’d be willing to strip hotel beds during the tourist months, go on unemployment in the offseason, and repeat the cycle the next year. “For us, that’s great — we’re not retraining and stuff,” Witham says. But for workers in a hot job market, there’s no reason to wait around for a position that only pays half the year.

Not only is it increasingly tough for Witham to recruit seasonal employees, but Bar Harbor is running out of housing for the ones he can find. Affordable rental rooms for workers have disappeared with the rise of short-term vacation rental markets like Airbnb and HomeAway. To cope, Witham’s company has bought a number of apartment complexes specifically to house temporary employees. He’s also talked to planning board members about changing zoning rules to allow him to build dormitory-style housing for seasonal workers. And he’s looking into grant money for a regional bus route into Bar Harbor, or maybe even a ferry, to attract workers from off the island. “Ten or twenty years ago, when it was time to open your business, you could put out help-wanted signs and just get people,” Witham says. “Now it’s at a point where even if you can get five more, ten more . . . every body starts to matter.”

I still have people say, ‘Why aren’t you hiring Americans?’ I say, ‘Send them!’ I want to hire anybody who walks through the door.

— Sarah Diment

While more H-2B visas would relieve some of the stress, the fundamental problem — the local labor deficit — is homegrown. “The bottom line,” says the Department of Labor’s Julie Rabinowitz, “is we need more people who will put down roots and establish families.” One proposed long-term solution is to encourage more immigrants to settle in Maine. Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, has been stumping for friendly immigration policies ever since reports from the Maine Development Foundation, Coastal Enterprises, and the Partnership for a New American Economy proved to him how important new Mainers are to the state’s economic future. “When you look at our population of 1.3 million, close to 400,000 of those are the baby boomers,” Connors says. “They’ve retired or are on the cusp of retiring, and the birthrate doesn’t anywhere near replace that. Our workforce challenge is a paramount issue. To grow the economy, you need people.”

Sarah Diment’s 80-year-old mother recently suggested she recruit from Maine’s existing immigrant population for her Ogunquit resort. She’s looking into it. “It’s hard when you have a small business and you’re humming along and all of a sudden things come to a pretty abrupt bump because you can’t find people to work,” she says. “I still have people say, ‘Why aren’t you hiring Americans?’ I say, ‘Send them!’ I want to hire anybody who walks through the door. But we’re blessed with a 2.6-percent unemployment rate and, in Ogunquit, we have more jobs than residents.”

On stage that snowy morning at the conference in Augusta, Julie Rabinowitz filled in for Jeanne Paquette. She told attendees to “think outside the box” about hiring strategies and talked about state legislative moves that might help — changing restrictions on teenage workers, allowing asylum seekers to work. Afterward, George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, turned to the audience and asked, “Okay, how many people in the room are all set for their employees for the summer?”

With hundreds of industry people in the room, just one hand went up.

“Okay, everyone, go talk to her,” Gervais joked. “No, seriously, there’s no single idea that’s going to do it all by itself, so if you have something that’s working, I encourage you to share it.”

The woman who raised her hand — Jo Freilich of the High Tide Inn in Camden — said later that it’s “total fluke” she’s fully staffed. “This is the first year that my palms aren’t sweating worrying if I’m going to get employees,” she said with a laugh.

What’s her trick? “No trick,” she said. “I’m just fortunate. And I try to make it a fun place to work.” Last year, she hired two girls from the Midwest who worked hard but also wanted to experience a Maine summer. She housed them, occasionally cooked for them, and arranged for them to go sailing on a schooner. When business was slow, she told them to go explore Acadia National Park. This summer, those two girls are sending their sisters to work. Most employers probably can’t invest that much personal touch to attract staff, but hey, every body counts.

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Jesse Ellison

Jesse Ellison is a Down East contributing editor.