April 08, 2020
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How Maine’s seasonal workers could benefit more from summer tourism

BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
People stream on and off The Pier in Old Orchard Beach, May 26, 2014.

We are fortunate that our state is full of tourists this summer.

Local businesses from Down East to the western mountains have seen a return of families, friends and the next generation of campers and summer visitors. Most of us who have lived in Maine know of friends who have come to Maine for a week or more each summer for generations. They fill the campgrounds, summer cottages and even remote fishing and hunting camps throughout the state. Based on information from the Maine Office of Tourism, the population of the state of Maine doubles and even triples during the summer season.

Summer is also the time when many small businesses and their employees count on the bounty of visitors. Camps that opened in late May are nearly full. Restaurants have hired summer staff, and small convenience stores around the state have expanded hours and hired extra staff to help out.

The data suggest that tourism spending in Maine is on the upswing. Just in 2015, tourists spent $5.65 billion, a 3.2 percent increase over 2014. That is a lot of dinners in great restaurants throughout the state, supplies at campgrounds, gifts from the variety of Maine vendors and even gas and snacks at convenience stores.

Lost in all this good news is the percentage of the population who rely on seasonal work as employees to make ends meet throughout the entire 52 weeks. While a small percentage of the workers may have access to overtime, most will work 30 to 40 hours per week during the 10-week summer period. At minimum wage, this means, at most, the worker could gross $3,000 in a 10-week period. For most families in Maine who have two seasonal workers, this means a “good summer” would be $6,000 of full-time work, then sporadic hours during the remaining 42 weeks during the year. Most of these seasonal workers live well below the poverty line. This means summer earnings must be saved and past due bills paid during the good times.

However, poverty has its pitfalls.

One expensive car repair bill or medical emergency can force a family to lose stable housing or even a job. People who are poor and working also face the challenge of keeping a good-paying summer job. Challenges may include limited or nonexistent child care, family illnesses or emergency and unreliable transportation. Because the season is short and the work intense, workers must be reliable and flexible. Most of these jobs are low-skill, which also means these positions are easily filled if an employee does not have the flexibility or reliability an employer needs.

An increase in the minimum wage from $7.50 to $10 per hour would greatly impact summer workers opportunity substantiality. Two workers working full time over the course of the 10-week season would see their gross wages grow from $6,000 to $8,000. This $2,000 over the summer season is significant. Those extra earnings can help a family pay for child care so they can work irregular hours during the summer. Or the extra wages may be used for reliable transportation, stable housing, heat during the winter months and even for increased job training skills. The extra wages also could be used to increase access to nutritious food and health care for themselves or family members.

To be clear, this increase of $2,000 during the summer months for the working poor will not bring them out of poverty. According to the federal poverty guidelines, a family of three would need to earn at least $20,160 annually.

Even with an increase in the minimum wage to $10, the remaining seasonal work will not bring those families out of poverty. However, this small amount of summer earnings will provide a change in a family’s trajectory as well as some level of stability.

On a larger scale, this small investment pales in comparison to the revenue from summer tourism, which, by all accounts, is forecast to continue to increase in the coming years. Knowing that my fellow Mainers are a bit more financially stable and perhaps better off at the end of the summer season seems like the right thing to do.

Thomas McLaughlin is a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of New England.


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