Julia Starr places a beer on the bar April 19 at Rising Tide Brewing on Fox Street in Portland. The brewery has the largest full-time front-of-house staff it has ever had, although day-to-day staffing remains a challenge for many other hospitality businesses because of a worker shortage. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Maine’s tourist season is on the horizon, and the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel feels real to many.

But as more people feel comfortable taking a vacation or eating at a restaurant, the state’s hospitality industry faces a labor shortage.

Steve Hewins, executive director of the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation, last week said the industry has reached a “crisis level” in its need for employees at restaurants and hotels. The issue exists, Hewins said, despite wages that are the highest they have ever been.

Rising Tide Brewing on Fox Street in Portland has moved its service entirely outdoors in an effort to keep customers, and especially hard-to-find workers, safe during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

A recent HospitalityMaine membership survey found 96 percent are hiring right now. Member establishments were also asked to rank how difficult hiring has been on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the most difficult; 80 percent of respondents said hiring has been at a 4 or 5, which indicates “difficult” or “extremely difficult.”

“With Portland being so dependent on this industry, it has the ability to derail a potential recovery,” Hewins said.

HospitalityMaine will try to help by launching a statewide recruitment campaign to attract workers to the industry. The campaign will utilize social media, Hewins said, to remind potential employees “how great it is” to work in the industry; its website, GreatMaineComeback.org, will provide a portal for submitting resumes to businesses that are hiring.

The campaign is grant-funded, Hewins added, and will be cost-free to businesses or workers who would like to participate, with a goal to act as a conduit between job seekers and employers.

A lot of the work HospitalityMaine did during 2020, Hewins said, was to help ailing businesses secure financial aid, which culminated in a large federal aid package towards the end of the year that allowed many to hibernate through the winter.

“They were paying the rent, they were paying (the utilities), but they laid everybody off,” Hewins said. “It’s sort of like businesses are emerging from their holes, but all of their employees might not be coming back.”

Hewins said there is little hard data about why hospitality employees are hesitant to return to their former positions. Some people may have moved on to other jobs when their former employers closed over the winter, he said, while others may be afraid of catching COVID-19, and some may prefer to stay on extended unemployment benefits than return to work.

Another factor that plays into the worker shortage, he said, is fewer foreign workers are able to obtain H-2B and J-1 seasonal visas. Places like Cape Cod, Hewins said, are “incredibly affected” by the shortage, as reported by the Boston Globe.

J-1 visas, which allow foreign college students to obtain temporary American employment, are “almost exclusively out (of the question)” this year he said because the student workers are often from Eastern Europe and are not able to travel because of pandemic restrictions.

At Solo Italiano on Commercial Street in Portland, where kitchen jobs have been hard to fill, management believes the availability of unemployment benefits is being used as a scapegoat in the hiring crunch. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Maine experienced its 13th record year for hospitality and tourism in 2019, he added, and at that time employed between 8,000 and 10,000 temporary foreign workers, which accounted for roughly 10 percent of the industry’s workforce. 

Hewins said he thinks the state needs to stop relying so heavily on temporary foreign workers because there are “too many variables” involved.

Jesse Bania, general manager and wine director at Commercial Street Italian restaurant Solo Italiano, said he thinks extended unemployment benefits are often used as a “scapegoat” in discussions about the worker shortages in the industry.

Bania said unemployment aid is “not very easy to get,” and he thinks there are other factors at play.

One is a recently passed city ordinance that requires hazard pay for low-wage workers during states of emergency, like the ongoing one because of the pandemic. No employee at Solo Italiano makes less than what would be required as part of the order, Bania said, which was the case before the pandemic. But he thinks the conversation is having an impact on how people see gainful employment and fair wages. 

Solo Italiano does not typically do a lot of hiring going into the tourist season, Bania said, and though the restaurant did lose a few employees through a voluntary furlough at the end of last year, it has had luck finding qualified applicants for its front-of-house positions.

He said back-of-house positions, however, are more problematic. 

Bania said Maine’s labor market is poised for success in the future due to people moving away from areas like Boston to work here, but that does not help business owners in the short term.

“When you’re turning your lights on your need is more immediate, so you can’t just wait for the perfect person to come in,” he said

Management of Dana Street Italian restaurant Via Vecchia has had trouble finding kitchen workers, despite offering more than $18 per hour to start. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Joshua Miranda, owner of Dana Street Italian restaurant Via Vecchia and the Exchange Street bar Blyth & Burrows, echoed Bania. He said he has enough front-of-house staff but has found it much more difficult to find kitchen help than in years past, despite offering a starting wage of more than $18 per hour.

“There are many people out there looking for jobs, but not so many who want to work in a kitchen,” he said.

Kailey Partin, director of branding and hospitality for Rising Tide Brewing Co. on Fox Street, said her brewery currently has the largest full-time, front-of-house staff it has ever employed – largely because Rising Tide completely changed its format due to the pandemic, seating customers only outside instead of in its tasting room.

Still, Partin said Rising Tide is trying to add several part-time employees and will eventually bring on more per-diem employees on the assumption the brewery can resume hosting events like rehearsal dinners and baby showers.

Despite being allowed to host indoor dining, she said the brewery continues to be “very, very cautious” about not doing so until it is safe, with staff safety as its first priority.

How much interest Rising Tide receives from job applicants has varied from week to week, she said. “One week we might get slammed, the next week it’s crickets. It’s basically rolling admission,” Partin said. 

The hardest part has been getting the word out about available jobs, she said, and the flow of applications has slowed in recent weeks.

Partin said she knows hiring remains an issue for many Maine businesses, and it is difficult to draw sweeping conclusions.

“I hear all the time about this kind of conflict, where businesses are struggling to hire and then young people are struggling to find work,” she said. “Closing that gap is hard. Every business is a completely different animal.”