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

Automotive detailer Aaron Brann uses an extractor while deep cleaning the seats of a vehicle at Morrissette Inc. in Waterville recently. Owner Dave Morrissette said in his 45 years in business he had never had to advertise a summer helper, but that has changed. Rich Abrahamson / Morning Watch

Since 1976, Morrissette Inc. has been detailing and repairing cars and selling used cars and diesel tractors in Waterville. In the past 45 years, he has never had to advertise for summer aid, as there were usually about half a dozen applications that were always on file.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed that. Business owner Dave Morrissette first said he had to advertise for help this summer, with little success.

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

Morrissette’s experience is the same for many other Central Maine businesses looking to increase their services during the busy summer months. As the impact of COVID-19 appears to be easing, many owners are hoping for a return to normalcy after a few years of labor shortages that disrupted business operations. Indeed, the U.S. economy is booming in many ways, and employers nationwide are hiring at a healthy pace – around 431,000 jobs were created in March alone.

But a number of factors, such as an aging Maine workforce, continue to cause hiring problems in the state, despite national labor statistics showing 1.8 job openings for every unemployed worker. , according to Michael Hillard, a longtime professor of economics at the University of Southern Maine.

“During the times when COVID wasn’t raging, most of the workers came back, but we’re still a few million dollars nationally from where we should be,” he said.

Morrissette said her company is trying to hire two full-time and one part-time workers in the summer just to meet the demand for car detailing.

He said his business had to rely heavily on income from the sale of used cars and small diesel tractors. He is grateful that due to the pandemic many people are looking for “toys” to use outside.

In an attempt to bring in workers, Morrissette said it ran an ad online for two months and only received five applications. He arranged interviews for all five, but only one showed up. Morrissette hired the person who showed up mid-week and set the following Monday as the candidate’s first day. But the person never showed up for work.

Shop Foreman Nichole Austin works at a brisk pace while detailing a vehicle at Morrissette Inc. in Waterville recently. The company is struggling to find enough workers to meet demand. Rich Abrahamson / Morning Watch

Belanger’s Drive-In in Fairfield experienced similar staffing issues. A person would be hired, only to quit before starting work, owner Joseph Goodwin said.

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

Bélanger’s in 2019 announced it was hiring 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 stopped trying to fill vacancies, he said. Bélanger’s luck ran out a little this year and she was able to hire a few people, but hiring remains a struggle.

“It takes a lot to get your business fully staffed, especially if you’re seasonal,” Goodwin said.

West of Augusta Camping in Winthrop, owners Kaleb and Brittany Malmsten said they usually try to hire six to eight seasonal workers, but last year they were only able to hire five.

This year the couple are still trying to find enough workers, even as their opening looms on SundayMay 15. If they don’t fill the vacancies of gardener and maintenance, they have to do the rest of the work. They said they received help from their family.

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

“I certainly hope things will settle down soon,” Brittany Malmsten said. “Or it’s going to put a lot of these small businesses under.”

Hillard, the USM economist, said what will likely benefit business owners is a slowdown in the national economy.

“The good thing for employers is that the economy is expected to slow by the end of the year,” Hillard said. “A to slow down in the economy is what we need at this point.

Such a slowdown could lead to to higher unemployment and a mild recession, but clarifies the request for workers.

Dave Morrissette, president of Morrissette Inc., shown outside his business on College Avenue in Waterville recently, said for decades he never had to advertise for summer aid because he always had a half- dozen candidates on file. But that changed and now he can’t find enough people to meet the demand for service. Rich Abrahamson / Morning Watch

The unemployment rate hit 14.7% during the pandemic, which was one of three times since the Great Depression that it exceeded 10%, according to Hillard. There has been enough fiscal stimulus in the economy to get jobs back to where they should be, but COVID has proven to be a recurring roadblock.

Hillard said Maine employers have an uphill battle due to the state’s tourism-driven economy, mixed with slow labor force growth and an older population.

“The question is what can be done to fix it?” he said. “National immigration policy, work visas may be the only tools until circumstances change.”

Jessica Picard, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, said the recreation and hospitality sector as well as retail “have the highest rates of summer seasonal hiring.”

“Somerset County is home to a portion of winter tourism that requires employers to hire additional staff to support this activity (winter recreation such as snowmobiling and skiing), resulting in a somewhat smaller difference in the total number of jobs between the winter and summer seasons there,” she 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 youth under 16.

Shop foreman Nichole Austin recently cleans the windshield of a vehicle at Morrissette Inc. in Waterville. Owner Dave Morrissette said it’s been difficult to keep a full team of auto detailers in the business since COVID-19 gripped the country. Rich Abrahamson / Morning Watch

“Of the more than 1,000 statewide work permit applications we have received so far this year, 43% were for young people seeking to work in the hospitality industry,” a- he declared.

He noted that seasonal businesses in Maine hire temporary workers through the federal H-2B visa program, which allows employers to temporarily access foreign workers when U.S. workers are unavailable.

“During the pandemic, many workers who would typically travel to Maine for temporary work were unable to do so,” Gingras said in an email. “Governor. (Janet) Mills and the Maine congressional delegation have consistently 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 tourist season,” he said.

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