BELFAST, Maine — As some Mainers turn their faces towards the long-awaited sun this Memorial Day, others are buckling down and preparing for the hard work of another summer tourist season.
Owners of restaurants, hotels, attractions and other businesses that depend on the busy months between Memorial Day and Columbus Day to make their living, hire thousands of workers each year, giving Maine the highest swing in the nation in seasonal employment. Those employers draw from a labor pool of high school and college students, foreign workers and retirees, hiring between 33,000 and 35,000 jobs in the summer months, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research.
While the faces of the people waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms may have shifted over the last few decades, having a mixture of worker demographics is crucial to a businesses success, according to Greg Dugal, the executive director of the Maine Innkeeper’s Association.
“A good strategy for a seasonal business is ‘all of the above,’” he said last week. “The mix of employees are really a little bit of everything.”
Glenn Mills, the chief economist at the Center for Workforce Research, noted that teen jobs have been trending down while jobs for senior citizens have been trending up.
“Part of that is that there are fewer kids,” he said. “Part of it is that they’re competing against older people.”
Baby boomers now range from 49 to 67 years old, and the share of seniors in the workforce is rising, Mills said.
Another important worker demographic for seasonal businesses are foreigners who come to Maine through the H2B and J1 visa programs. Many of those are college students from Eastern Europe, traveling on the J1 student visa. There also are a number of workers from Jamaica, Mexico and other countries who spend their summers working in Maine.
In popular destinations such as Mount Desert Island, as many as several hundred foreign workers find employment each summer, according to Chris Fogg of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. His community of about 5,000 year-round people now has 3,100 total hotel rooms.
“The demand’s there, and they’re getting filled, which means jobs,” Fogg said. “It’s hard sometimes to fill the cleaning positions and other jobs using local people.”
Before employers can hire foreign workers, they must first show they’re having a hard time finding local people to fill the positions, according to Mills.
Finding that local help proved difficult for Dianne Parker, who co-owns and manages Young’s Lobster Pound in Belfast. Twelve years ago, when Parker and her brother, Raymond Young, took over the family business from their parents, they had problems finding willing and capable summer workers. She found trouble with American teenagers who ‘can’t even add and subtract,’ and also learned that mothers seem more motivated to find their children summer employment than the teens are to do the actual work.
“We had no help. Nobody wanted to work when we needed them to,” she said. “Holidays, sunny days, weekends, they want their nights off. We have to hire people from out of the country. It’s kind of sad — the employment rate is so high, but we need them when we need them.”
Young’s Lobster Pound has found that foreign workers are the solution. They have a crew of eight Jamaican and Mexican workers, many of whom have worked there for several seasons. The business must pay for costs including their flights, paperwork and housing, but it is money well spent, Parker said.
“The summer workers are here to work. They’ll work any time we call. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the foreign workers doing the jobs that basically Americans don’t want to do, I don’t know where we’d be.”
Carlos Diaz of Chiapas, Mexico, is in his second season working for the lobster pound and said that he enjoys working with people.
“I love this place. I like to talk to people,” he said Monday afternoon while readying cardboard boxes for carryout lobsters with other employees from Jamaica and Maine.
His boss, Raymond Young, said that the foreign workers are reliable, which is crucial for him.
“These guys always have a smile,” he said of the workers. “They come here to work and they come to make a better life for their families.”
But Lindsay Gifford-Skilling, the general manager of Skowhegan-based Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, has had a different experience with summer employment. The company hires about 75 seasonal workers, most of whom staff the ice cream stands. She said that summer hiring at Gifford’s has been steady over the past years and described the business as recession-proof.
“Maybe you can call us lucky, but we draw in a good pool of employees and applicants,” she said. “We have a really good team and longevity. A lot of our teammates at our ice cream stand, they come back year over year, even when they go into college.”