Complex worker shortage problem strains businesses, employees in central Maine

·11 min read

May 22—Every time Barbara Clark gets notified of a new application to Pete's Pig Catering & Barbecue, she makes immediate contact.

Rarely, if ever, does she hear back.

"I just shoot them a message asking if they're available and nobody responds," said Clark, who owns the Waterville business with her husband, Pete. "You just don't hear from them."

Recent ads posted by the Clarks on their business's Facebook and Craigslist pages resulted in 23 applications. Just three followed up. One interview resulted from the ad and the person was hired. Pete's Pig is starting employees at $16 an hour and offering a bonus for employees who stay on the whole season, which runs from May 18 through the end of October.

The Clarks' experience at their Waterville restaurant is not uncommon, as many area business owners report challenges with hiring help.

The business is there, but workers are hard to come by. It's a nationwide issue many business owners attribute to expanded unemployment benefits, currently $300 extra per month as part of the $900 million national stimulus package.

But it's just not that simple. Nationwide reporting shows the pandemic made individuals reevaluate their careers and priorities. There's a confluence of factors for the worker shortage being felt here and across the country, experts say.

"It's never one thing," Thomas College Assistant Professor of Business Dan Leland said. "I think we'd be remiss to disregard the unemployment benefits having some sort of impact, but it's not the underlying factor."

According to the state's most recent unemployment numbers, Kennebec County's 4.7% unemployment rate is up from 4.1% a year ago. The national unemployment rate is 6.1%.

The Maine Department of Labor paid out over $2.19 billion in federal and state unemployment benefits from March 15, 2020, through May 15, 2021. Recently, the state announced its reinstatement of pre-pandemic standards for unemployment. Work search requirements relaxed during the pandemic are changing, effective this weekend, where recipients of unemployment show they are actively looking for work and will accept jobs they are qualified for effective May 23. The extra monthly benefit runs out in September.

"Thousands of Maine people lost their jobs during the pandemic, through no fault of their own," Department of Labor Commission Laura Fortman said earlier this month. "Now it is our goal to get them back to work."

STAFFING SHORTAGE 'AWFUL'

AtWork Recruiting and Staffing, which has four offices and is based out of Hampden, focuses on staffing at construction sites, especially traffic control flaggers.

"We actually have a significantly higher demand," said Devan Moody, business development manager for AtWork Recruiting and Staffing. "We need a lot. It's a super entry-level job, but we're still having an issue."

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the month of March showed approximately 610,000 Mainers working on non-farm payrolls, which remains down from approximately 636,000 in March of 2020. The categories down the most year over year include leisure and hospitality (-11,500); government (-5,200) and trades, transportation and utility (-3,600).

Leland thinks people have been recalibrated as to the type of work pursued, but also external factors pulled individuals out of work.

"They're not taking benefits, they just completely walked away from the market," Leland said. "A lot of that comes from the factor that we all have lots of responsibilities."

In 2021 alone, AtWork has spent $6,600 on Indeed advertising with a 15.9% of advertisement viewers actually applying. They've spent $26,000 on Facebook advertising since 2017, with $18,500 spent in 2021. This year, through Facebook, AtWork Recruiting and Staffing has received 300 applications for roles statewide.

"That's awful, quite honestly," Moody said.

Punch Construction in Waterville has three full-time employees and a handful of part-time employees. They are currently working on a project at the Maine Veteran's Home in Augusta doing windows, sill, trimming and cabinetry in resident rooms. Ideally, he'd take three more full-time employees, which would allow workers to do shifts in pairs. Owner Bill Kapaldo could oversee the niche "one-stop shop" commercial projects his company does.

"I have to be very selective and careful as to the size (of the project) I go after," Kapaldo said.

Punch Construction spent $800 a month for over six months on Indeed ads with zero return.

Rod Wiles, vice president of human resources at Hammond Lumber Company, said the company is "struggling in every category" to fill positions from entry-level to experienced.

Hammond Lumber's Belgrade headquarters houses its main office, a saw mill and maintenance garage. The hub of the company is seeing more employees working overtime and pooling supply and material resources with nearby branches in Farmington, Fairfield and Skowhegan.

MORE THAN A JOB

The Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce's job board is as full as ever.

James Myall, policy analyst for the Maine Center for Economic Policy, said the availability of workers depends on the industry. He does not think the extra unemployment money is the issue, rather the pandemic and also issues with childcare.

"There's the pandemic and health concerns that are still a problem for a lot of folks," Myall said. "And a lot of these frontline places are a little riskier for people to work."

According to data from the Pew Research Center, nearly 600,000 more women left the labor force than men during the first 12 months of the pandemic. Experts say many women are staying home and taking care of children as costs rise even as some schools continue under remote or hybrid schedules.

Kayla Savinelli, mother of soon-to-be one-year-old Enzo, is only working part-time instead of full-time as a server at Applebee's in Waterville.

"He's not in daycare because of COVID, and because it's so expensive," said Savinelli, of Detroit. "With me not being able to work as much, and the whole restaurant industry suffering right now, it wouldn't even be realistic to pay for daycare."

Well before the pandemic, Central Maine Growth Council heard daily from businesses small and large about workforce challenges in every industry. Garvan Donegan, the growth council's director of planning, innovation and economic development, said in an email he believes many industries are suffering from global supply demands.

"From the Maine perspective, pre-COVID-19, the state was already experiencing significance challenges with our labor markets and hiring — across all industry segments — as a result of Maine's arguably largest pre-COVID-19 economic challenge: the state has long been faced with an increasing population of older age cohorts, met by a general declining population, which has resulted in a reduction in the population of Maine's working age labor force," Donegan said.

"Now, while we're certainly experiencing an exciting and accelerated uptick of in-migration, attraction of rural remote works, new digital economy jobs, and 'boomerangers' coming to Maine from more urban locations and states," Donegan continued, "COVID-19 has clearly exacerbated labor force issues across the country and has been discriminatory with regards to hitting certain industry segments particularly hard."

Rev. Maureen Ausbrook of the Waterville United Church of Christ and Starfish Village Ministry works with many locals and their case managers to help secure housing, food and employment.

Ausbrook knows many homeless people in the Waterville area looking for and willing to work. Many don't have a consistent address to put on job applications and spend much of their efforts looking for a bed, food and a place to charge electronics on a daily basis.

"It's a lack of stability," Ausbrook said. "If people want to get really serious about this particular group of employees they have to think about housing and get a sense of the issue."

There are other issues such as transportation. Wages and varying hours also play into the a sense of stability, Ausbrook said.

"I think employers need to step up and pay a better wage," Ausbrook said. "Even if you're on subsidized housing, they're not taking into consideration the cost of a car, insurance... It's very expensive to live here. I talk to people all the time about these great programs, but I also talk to people who have no access to them."

Cassandra Smith, 46, of Waterville, is not currently working. She formerly worked at Walmart, but didn't feel comfortable walking the 1.5 miles from her apartment to work at night when her shift changed. She didn't have a car at the time but does now.

Smith, who is on social security disability, is looking for work again. She's having trouble with online applications, where Smith is redirected to website after website. Smith is a recovering drug addict and is looking to turn her life around. She's two years sober, but feels she's been stigmatized.

"It's difficult to even get a job," Smith said. "If you don't have the right background and all. It's like a Catch-22. If you don't tell them your background, you get fired for lying. If you do tell them, you won't get hired at all."

WORKERS FEEL IT, TOO

Jamie Pomerleau, 44, of Waterville, is a full-time bartender at Applebees and recently started part time at Silver Tavern. Even as restaurant pandemic restrictions loosen, they can't because there is not enough staff.

"Applebees has been insane," Pomerleau said. "There have been nights where we've had to close because we haven't had staff and other weeks where I've pulled ridiculous hours."

So too has Stasha Baldwin.

A Sidney resident and part-time worker at Aubuchon Hardware in Waterville, Baldwin is only allowed an average of 30 hours per week by company rule. In recent weeks and months, Baldwin is working closer to 40 hours. While she doesn't necessarily mind, the extra hours could come back to bite her later in the year.

"I'm busting my butt now because they need the extra help, but what am I going to do come winter time when they say I can only work five, 10 hours a week?" Baldwin said. "It's really hard to pass up the extra opportunity to work, but it's always in the back of my mind that working 10 extra hours this week is going to come off at the end."

Baldwin, 29, also co-owns Wolf Creek Maple farm in Sidney. She worries about others in her situation who do not have time, or other responsibilities, that prevent them from working multiple jobs.

The hardware store's search for an assistant manager is now three months old. Baldwin, a six-year employee, works on the sales floor and unofficially takes on managerial-esque duties. Additional part-time help is also needed.

"It means a whole lot more work for me, that's for sure," Baldwin said. "It's certainly a juggling act right now.

PLAYING THE GAME

Sheila Iveson, owner of Sheba's Wicked Kitchen food truck in Oakland, was "shocked" when four prospective employees asked to be paid under the table in order to continue receiving unemployment benefits.

"It literally shocked me ... I had never run into that before," Iveson said.

There are many fields that offer working from home, but those that cannot are struggling.

Day's Store in Belgrade is readying for what looks to be a busy summer. They're open daily from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. and busy the entire time with its gift shop, ice cream stand, groceries and made-to-order food. There's plenty of work, but not enough people to do it.

"Our concern lies with staffing," store manager Melissa Furbush said. "You want to do the best you can, but if you're understaffed it's not going to work out well."

Day's Store currently employs 10, but needs six more full-time workers and part-time help to keep its current hours, which have been shortened by three hours per day over the last couple of years.

"There's a possibility we might run six days," store co-owner Diane Oliver said. "It's not out of the question."

If they do cut back on hours, Day's Store certainly would not be alone. The popular Korner Store in Oakland is not opening on Sundays. Cappza's Pizza in Waterville is closed on Mondays effective this month.

The owners of Pete's Pig are experiencing the same issue with finding cleaners and other employees at their seasonal Belgrade Vacation Rental business.

Pete's Pig, on Water Street in Waterville, needs a dozen employees including a handful of cashiers, counter help and servers. For the first time ever, they may go through a staffing firm to find the help they need.

And that's far from a guarantee.

"It's kind of like a nightmare, and I'll be glad when this is over," Clark said. "It's hard to run a business when you don't know who is going to show up for work."

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