Seasonal businesses in central Maine struggle to find workers as economic conditions improve

 Seasonal businesses in central Maine struggle to find workers as economic conditions improve

Auto detailer Aaron Brann uses an extractor while cleaning the deep seats of a Morrissette Inc. car. in Waterville recently. Owner Dave Morrissette said over the course of 45 years in the business he no longer had to advertise for summer help, but that has changed. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Since 1976, Morrissette Inc. details and repairs cars and sells used cars and diesel tractors in Waterville. For 45 years there will no longer be a need to advertise for summer assistance because there are usually about half a dozen applications that are always on file to get.

But the coronavirus pandemic changes that. Company owner Dave Morrissette said for the first time he had to announce for help this summer, without much success.

The lack of seasonal help “severely affected my summer income,” Morrissette said.

Morrissette’s experience is similar for many other businesses in central Maine seeking to increase services during the busy summer months. While the impact of COVID-19 appears to be diminishing, many owners expect to return to normal after several years of labor shortages that have disrupted business operations. In fact, the U.S. economy is in many strides growing and the country’s landlords are hiring at a rapid pace-about 431,000 jobs were added in March alone.

But many factors, such as an older Maine worker, continue to cause the state’s hiring pains, despite national labor statistics showing 1.8 job openings for per person unemployed, according to University of Southern Maine economics professor Michael Hillard.

“In times when COVID wasn’t upset, most of the workers came back, but we’re still a million down the country from where we should be,” he said.

Morrissette said her company is trying to hire two full-time and one part-time summer worker just to meet the need for auto detailing.

He said his company will have to rely heavily on revenue from the sale of used cars and small diesel tractors. He is thankful that because of the pandemic many people are looking for “toys” to use outdoors.

In an attempt to bring in workers, Morrissette said she ran an ad online for two months and she only received five applications. He did interviews for all five, but only one showed up. Morrissette hired the man who showed up in the middle of the week and scheduled the following Monday as the applicant’s first day. But the man never showed up for work.

Shop foreman Nichole Austin worked at a brisk pace while detailing a Morrissette Inc car. in Waterville recently. The business is struggling to find enough workers to meet the demand. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Belanger’s Drive-In in Fairfield experienced similar staffing problems. Someone can be hired, just to quit before work starts, owner Joseph Goodwin said.

“Last year was the worst we’ve seen for hiring,” said Goodwin, who also founded the company J&J Custom Homes last year.

Belanger’s in 2019 announced it had hired and received 100 applications. Thirty of the candidates were interviewed for five or six positions.

Last year when the restaurant did the same, Goodwin said no more than three applications were received. For a long time the restaurant just stopped trying to fill open positions, he said. Belanger’s luck has changed a bit this year and it’s been able to hire a few people, but hiring remains a struggle.

“It’s very important to keep your business fully staffed, especially if you’re seasonal,” Goodwin said.

In west Augusta Kampground in Winthrop, owners Caleb and Brittany Malmsten said they typically try to hire six to eight seasonal staff, but last year hired only five.

The couple this year are still trying to find enough workers, despite their opening on Sunday.May 15. If they can’t fill open groundskeeper and maintenance positions, they will have to do the rest of the work. They said they asked for help from their family.

“If it weren’t for the family, we would work seven days a week for six months,” Kaleb Malmsten said.

“I really hope things get back to normal soon,” Brittany Malmsten said. “Or it will put a lot of small businesses under it.”

Hillard, the USM economist, said what is likely to benefit business owners is a cooling national economy.

“The good thing for owners is that the economy is likely to slow by the end of the year,” Hillard said. “A slow economically is what we need at this point. ”

Such a slowdown can lead of higher unemployment and a slight decline, however lighten the NEED for workers.

Dave Morrissette, president of Morrissette Inc., who appeared recently outside his business on College Avenue in Waterville, said for decades he no longer had to advertise for summer help because he always has about half a dozen applications on file. But that has changed and now he can no longer find enough people to keep up with the need for the service. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The unemployment rate reached 14.7% during the pandemic, one of three times since the Great Depression that it exceeded 10%, according to Hillard. There is enough fiscal stimulus put in place by the economy to get jobs back to where they need to be, but COVID has proven to be a recurring obstacle.

Hillard said Maine employers are having a heavy struggle because of the state’s tourist-driven economy mixed with low labor force growth with an aging population.

“The question is what can be done to fix it?” as he. “National immigration policy, work visas are probably the only tools until conditions change.”

Jessica Picard, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, said the entertainment and hospitality sector and also retail “have the highest rate of seasonal summer hiring.”

“Somerset County is home to some winter tourism that requires owners to hire more staff to support that activity (winter fun like snowmobiling and skiing) that brings to the relatively low difference in total employment between the winter and summer seasons there, ”he said.

Isaac Gingras, legislative liaison for the State Department of Labor, said the department has seen a slight increase in the number of work permit applications submitted for young people under the age of 16.

Store foreman Nichole Austin cleans the windshield of a Morrissette Inc car. in Waterville recently. Owner Dave Morrissette said it has been difficult to keep a full staff of auto details in the business since COVID-19 took over the country. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“Of the more than 1,000 statewide work permit applications we have received so far this year, 43% are for young people seeking to work in the hospitality sector,” he said.

He noted that seasonal businesses in Maine hire temporary workers through the federal H-2B visa program, which allows employers to access foreign workers on a temporary basis without the workers. in the US.

“During the pandemic, many workers who normally travel to Maine for temporary work were unable to,” Gingras said in an email. “Gob. (Janet) Mills and the Maine congressional delegation have repeatedly urged the Biden Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to increase the number of international work visas.

“These visas will help Maine businesses fill seasonal jobs and prepare for the summer tourism season,” he said.

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