A yellow sign with the words "help wanted, now training school bus drivers for fall," and a phone number in black lettering hangs on an orange school bus.
A help wanted sign for Cyr Bus hangs on a school bus in the parking lot of the Old Town-Orono YMCA. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Jon Stein is the founder of Fogtown Brewing Company and resides in Ellsworth.

Four years ago, I opened Fogtown Brewing Company in Ellsworth. I’d lived and worked in a number of cities, and finally decided to settle here nearly a decade ago.

Fogtown started with two full-time staff, but after a couple years of double-digit growth, we were able to open a second location in downtown Bar Harbor, and we now employ 12 people, with several more part-time. We could hire a lot more if Congress were to pass sensible immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and expands the labor force as we deal with worker shortages.

Maine is facing a severe labor shortage across business sectors, but our state’s hospitality industry has been acutely impacted by the lack of workforce. My business is no exception. Summers are key for my business which relies heavily on seasonal tourism. But over the past two seasons, despite our continued growth, we had to close our doors to customers two days per week because we couldn’t find adequate staff to stay open full-time, taking a 15 to 20 percent bite out of our profits.

This is due, in part, to the COVID-19-related travel restrictions placed on immigrant visa workers who populate our state’s farms, restaurants and hotels on a seasonal basis. But it’s also a byproduct of a state with an aging population struggling to attract young workers.

Maine has the oldest population in the U.S. From 2018 to 2028, Maine’s population is projected to increase only 2 percent, but its working age population (ages 20-64) is actually projected to decrease nearly 8 percent over the same period.

According to the Boston Fed, last year our state finally passed a tipping point in which we officially have more residents over the age of 65 than under the age of 18. In the past 10 years, Maine’s retirement-age population grew by 35 percent while the number of school-aged children shrank in every county between 2017 and 2020. Baby boomers are aging out of Maine’s workforce, and in 2028, the youngest boomers will be 64 years old.

As those same baby boomers continue to age, their need for home health aides will rise, further increasing the demand for immigrant workers who often fill those jobs. Immigrants only comprise 3.7 percent of Maine’s population (compared with 13.6 percent of the national population), but they comprise 6.2 percent of our home health aides.

Without some serious changes in our labor market, our state is about to feel the pinch of what happens in a service economy when there’s no one to provide service. 

We’ll wait longer to get a table at our favorite restaurant; we’ll stand in longer lines at the grocery store; we’ll spend a lot more time in doctor’s office waiting rooms and struggle to get home health care. And our economy will suffer.

Or, we could grow our state’s economy, if Congress passed a pathway to citizenship for our nation’s undocumented immigrants, allowing large and small businesses like mine to address the worker shortages we face by giving us a legal means of tapping into one of our nation’s hardest working labor forces. 

A fortunate byproduct would, of course, be diversification; Part of the struggle to find labor stems from our state’s notable homogeneity, and skilled brewers I’ve attempted to recruit to Northern Maine have cited lack of diversity as a reason they wouldn’t move here.

With so much economic potential tied to a path to citizenship, it’s little wonder that immigration reforms enjoy broad bipartisan support across the political spectrum. In fact, a recent bipartisan poll conducted by the American Business Immigration Coalition, found that voters in battleground states support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, even if it’s through the reconciliation process, by a margin of 3-to-1.

The broad voter support for immigration reform should be a political no-brainer for Maine’s congressional delegation. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree should be rolling up their sleeves and doing everything they can to pass common sense immigration reform, starting with  legalizing immigrants already here, because it’s the right thing to do for our communities, our economy and for all Mainers.