OGUNQUIT, Maine — Stripping the linens off a trundle bed as surf from the Atlantic Ocean crashed outside the picture window, Sarah Diment was doing triple duty last week at The Beachmere Inn.
Last Friday morning the inn owner was the housekeeper; the night before she worked the front desk; later she interviewed possible hires to step into the lodging industry.
“You have people on the horizon, but you never know who will show up,” said Diment, who needs to hire a dozen employees — from housekeepers, to dishwashers to front desk people — in order to keep her 73-room inn on The Marginal Way humming. “I’ve been here 22 years and it’s the tightest labor market I’ve ever seen.”
As the summer of 2017 approaches, a perfect storm for the seasonal hospitality industry is gathering over Vacationland.
Maine is experiencing record low unemployment rates. At the same time, a hospitality boom is ushering in new hotels and restaurants all along the coast. A change in the rules for hiring foreign seasonal workers through H-2B visa program has prevented many hoteliers from rehiring skilled help from places such as Jamaica this summer.
Other factors in gentrifying cities such as Portland is the lack of affordable housing, along with last year’s cook shortage that left restuarants scrambling before Memorial Day, which has returned with a vengeance.
“A restaurant doesn’t need five chefs; we need line cooks, entry-level jobs,” said Matt Chappell, owner of Gather restaurant in Yarmouth. He added that finding enough kitchen help is a chronic problem but has now become a crisis. “There are plenty of people who are still passionate about food; there are just not enough of them to go around.”
Steve Hewins, president of the Maine Restaurant and the Maine Innkeepers Association, fears the state’s strides in its chief industry could backslide if these jobs go unfilled.
In late March, the association released impressive numbers of growth exceeding $3.6 billion in 2016 in restaurant and lodging sales — a jump of nearly 7 percent from the previous year.
“Those numbers will slip,” said Hewins. “In this state we take tourism for granted. Tourism is one of the few sectors of the state to grow.”
It has done so on the backs of seasonal workers.
Many are foreign workers here on visas, along with college students and some locals. With nearly full employment for Mainers, fewer and fewer people are looking for summer jobs this season.
“We have reached our prerecession peak of total employment and are at a new all-time high in private-sector employment,” said Julie Rabinowitz, director of policy, operations and communication for Maine Department of Labor.
“The year-round jobs are pulling people who might have been under-employed or working two part time jobs, with one or both being seasonal-related, into one year-round full-time job or a full-time, year-round job and one seasonal job.”
Maine’s aging workforce can’t pick up the slack of labor-intensive positions such as housekeeping and cooking by a hot stove. College students are less and less interested in cleaning rooms all summer, and in restaurant-saturated cities like Portland housing is too pricey for kitchen staff to afford.
“Tourism is such a great thing for our state, the way life should be. But we are a rural state, not a state with a big population. We don’t have great public transportation. You have a lot of factors,” said Diment. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
Hunger for employees
With a spate of new restaurants opening this spring in Portland, oversaturation concerns restaurant owners such as Jason Loring, who owns Slab, Nosh, Rhum and Big J’s Chicken Shack in Portland.
“There are so many new openings, it’s absurd. It reminds me of 2009 and ’10 when we opened Nosh,” he said. “We are back to that critical amount of openings. And each place needs 10 to 20 employees. That is another 10 to 20 people I can’t hire,” said Loring.
To Loring, this year is harder than past years, and in Portland’s burgeoning food scene, “the funnel keeps getting smaller and smaller,” he said.
With a newer restaurant with a trendier spin opening every week, keeping staff once a restaurateur like Loring finds them is yet another issue.
“Every time I need an employee I have to spend a minimum of $1,200 to train them for the first week. It’s a constant struggle. A constant thing,” said Loring, who looks at all the places lined up to open this spring and scratches his head.
Give them shelter
Loring worries that as Portland’s construction boom rages and condos sell for more than a million dollars, lack of affordable housing will further alienate kitchen help.
”The people buying the $1.2 million homes are not working in my restaurants,” he said.
To work in one of his establishments, his kitchen staff needs to “move outside of downtown and drive in, but many don’t have cars, and the transit system is less than desireable,” he said. “In reality, the city has to get bigger and better with housing. We need it for everyone, blue-collar workers especially.”
Casey Prentice, owner of the Chebeague Island Inn, has found a solution.
Shortly after he took the inn over in 2010, he had a hard time attracting seasonal workers to his Casco Bay retreat. He started cold-calling resorts in Florida, who experience a counterseason and don’t need as many workers in the summer, and developed a relationship.
For the past four years Prentice has hired hotel professionals from Florida and South Carolina to work summers in Maine, and his problem was solved.
“It’s been a long road of building relationships,” said Prentice, who also subsidizes his employees’ housing and meals. “Not all places have the luxury of offering staff housing.” He has three houses on island and is thinking of building a fourth.
“There is no silver bullet. Just acknowledging the scope of the problem is a step in the right direction,” said Ed McKersie, founder of Live and Work in Maine, a Portland-based startup promoting Maine’s jobs and lifestyle.
Solutions such as jobs fairs led by the Maine Department of Labor seek to recruit workers in places such as Skowhegan and Oxford. A new bill is being proposed to open up more jobs in hospitality to teens.
And the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, put forth in late March to help reform the seasonal worker H-2B visa program, could have an impact. The legislation includes a returning worker exemption provision. If passed it would allow workers who previously worked in the U.S. through the program to not count against the visa cap.
While appreciating that local legislators are trying to bolster the workforce,
concerned innkeepers like Diment, who is already losing business, say it’s not enough.
“There needs to be a permanent fix. Small businesses that are seasonal in nature should not have to rely on a year-to-year visa program when there is clear definition of need in seaside communities,” she said.
“I am waiting and hoping beyond hope that the Congress and Senate see the light and understand small businesses are suffering and reinstate the returning workers exemption,” she said. “Paying overtime in April is very stressful.”