Oct. 17—Every week, owner Erin Bruns posts the schedule for Bruce's Burritos on social media pages, updates the hours on Google and tries to get the word out through regulars. One week, the Yarmouth restaurant was closed on Wednesday. Another, Monday. But there's only so much she can do, and people still show up sometimes to find the "Closed" sign on the door.
"I have to turn people away," Bruns said. "I've had to turn down large orders from companies that want 35 burritos by 11:45 on a Tuesday. We just can't fulfill all of it because staffing is so tight."
In Maine and across the country, the coronavirus pandemic transformed the labor market. Employers struggle to fill open positions, and people are still struggling with access to child care and concerns about COVID-19 that can prevent them from returning to work. In the meantime, a smaller staff means shorter hours for some businesses. They open later and close earlier, cut lunch or takeout, work fewer days. They print out new schedules each week for the front door, hoping to prevent confusion. They try to get their existing employees enough hours without pushing them over the edge.
Where a retailer in the before times might have closed on Monday, now they might close Monday and Tuesday. And where a restaurant might always take a seasonal break at the end of summer or scale back for fall, with fewer people doing more work those breaks are even more crucial for the well-being of employees.
Mary Alice Scott, the executive director of Portland Buy Local, said she is worried about burnout for owners and employees who are stretched thin even with reduced hours.
"So many people feel like they're playing catch-up from 2020, and 2020 was so painful," she said. "So they feel like if they can be open, then they need to be," Scott said.
At BaoBao Dumpling House in Portland, chef and co-owner Cara Stadler is down to half the staff she had before the pandemic. So she's eliminated lunch and only takes orders at the counter for dinner. Most customers have understood the need for changes, she said, except the guy who recently walked out in protest. And Stadler hasn't been able to hire enough people to reopen one of her other restaurants, Tao Yuan, in Brunswick.
Still, she said, she understands how hard this time is for workers. Stadler is among the restaurant owners who committed this summer to a national campaign for fair wages, diversity and safe working conditions in the industry.
"I'd rather be fully staffed and open for less services than cut corners and abuse humans," Stadler said. "You have to choose one. You can't have all of the above."
Justine Smith is the front manager at BaoBao. When she writes the schedule, she sometimes relies on the owners to fill in the gaps, washing dishes and running food to tables. Smith planned to study human resources on her days off, but she put that degree on hold because her workload at the restaurant had increased too much.
She asks that customers be patient and flexible. For example, don't leave a two-star review on Yelp just because your order took five extra minutes or the kitchen can't offer takeout when the tables are full. And she advises that business owners check in personally with their staff and make sure they aren't run into the ground.
"It's not your employee's problem that you're short-staffed, so don't make it that," she said. "I absolutely despise when I hear from other people in the industry, like, I've got to stay, or it will sink. Your employer shouldn't be making you feel that way. That's not a you thing."
Reduced hours at Tandem Coffee have been a welcome change for co-owner Will Pratt. The popular bakery on Congress Street used to be open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Now it's down to five days from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., operating with about two-thirds its previous staff. But there are still lines around the corner, and he hasn't really tried to hire to pre-pandemic levels or expand hours yet. ("That made us not want to look," he said of the problems he has heard about at other businesses.)
He said a smaller staff and a single shift is easier to manage, and customers seem to accept the changes.
"Everyone's pretty used to this new weird world," he said. "So there's no 'Why are you doing it like that?'"
As for how the changes will affect his budget, he isn't sure yet.
"We'll see," he said. "I've stopped making any projections. It's really hard to predict what's going to happen. It's like, let's try what feels good, and we'll respond as we go."
Scheduling changes due to hiring woes haven't just hit places serving food and drink.
Over the summer, Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco posted candidly on Facebook about its struggles with hiring, especially because of the lack of international students who often staff the amusement park.
"While this has always been an issue, this summer has been a little different, as everyone knows, and the pain is real," said one post in August. "That being said, over the course of our final full week of operations, there is a good chance that on some days not all attractions will be open for the entire day. We will of course make every effort to get things open, and even rotate through rides, giving everyone the opportunity to be entertained by everything at least once, but we wanted to give you the heads up."
The Portland Public Library's neighborhood branches are now back to their usual schedules, but its main hub on Congress Street has yet to reopen nights and weekends. Zoe Scott, director of advancement and external relations, said that can't happen until the library hires four more people at the lending desk. Those positions are key.
"It always looks like you're just checking out books, but it's bringing all the books that are returned, it's making sure all of the holds are ready for people when they come in, it's helping people in the library when we're open, it's cataloguing and shelving," Scott said. "We have a good team; we just don't have enough."
In Yarmouth, Bruns has asked her Bruce's Burritos customers to be kind, check business hours before heading her way and tip her workers well. She said she and her husband, Bruce Luttrell, pay their employees for 40 hours even if the restaurant has to close for one of their scheduled shifts. She spoke with awe of a regular who always leaves $50 on top of his usual $50 order.
"You just have to give people space," she said. "And understand that everybody is working as hard as they can."