By William Hall
As Maine is poised to record another month of historically low unemployment, many of the state’s businesses are preparing for the season when their demand for workers reaches historic highs.
The dilemma brought nearly 100 people to Portland in April for a business forum sponsored by the Portland Press Herald.
They gathered just days after the Maine Department of Labor announced it had estimated the state’s unemployment rate in March was 3.4 percent, below the national average of 3.8 percent.
At press time, April figures weren’t yet available. But when released, they’ll probably look similar. After all, Maine’s unemployment rate in March showed little change from the February rate of 3.5 percent, or from the 3.2 percent recorded in March 2018.
In fact, March 2019 was the 39th consecutive month in which the state’s jobless rate remained below 4 percent—the longest such period on record.
While workers may welcome the numbers, some economists and Maine employers are worried. And the approach of the summer tourist season only adds to their concern.
The state’s hospitality industry employs nearly 86,000 people during the summer, a more than 50 percent increase over non-peak employment of 56,000. Many of these seasonal jobs, which are concentrated along the Maine coast, may go unfilled.
“The numbers don’t work,” said Allyson Cavaretta, a panelist at the forum and general manager of the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit.
Panelist Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk Area Chamber of Commerce, told the forum, “The reality is, you just can’t fill all those jobs.”
Panelists recounted stories of how the hiring crunch has affected Maine inns, motels and restaurants. Greg Dugal, government affairs director for the trade group HospitalityMaine, mentioned a Camden property owner who had recently scheduled four interviews for a seasonal position: None of the job applicants even showed up.
Maine may be especially vulnerable to shortages of seasonal help.
In 2017, the state’s lodging and restaurant industries brought in sales of $3.8 billion. Of that amount, more than a third—$1.5 billion—came during the months of June, July, and August.
Maine’s retail workforce is also highly seasonal, according to a 2018 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The study found that roughly 3 percent of retail jobs in Maine were seasonal, more than any other state in the country.
Compounding the challenge are changes in what “seasonal” means. For example, some hotels and eateries are seeing more customers in late spring and early fall, periods when students, a traditional labor source, are less available to work.
“Our season starts earlier in the spring and goes straight through to the end of the year now,” said Cavaretta. “The ‘shoulders’ are much broader, and with more activities and events, you need employees much earlier and much deeper into the season.”
To cope with new demands like these, Dugal believes Maine employers need a new mindset.
“We’re looking at a whole different scenario,” he said. “It’s not only a challenge of the lack of individuals, or the population density in some locations. It’s a challenge of getting people engaged. This is a challenge all around the state, but it’s more acute on the coast.”
Foreign workers have long helped quench Maine’s summer hiring thirst, but current immigration policies don’t make enough of them available, the panelists agreed.
The federal government’s H-2B visa program allows citizens of other countries to come to the U.S. temporarily to fill seasonal, nonagricultural jobs. Businesses must request the visas on behalf of the workers; last year, 131 Maine employers requested visas to fill about 2,500 positions, according to the state.
But the number of visas issued is capped nationally, usually at an annual total of 66,000. Although additional visas have been granted in recent years, the program remains inadequate for the demand, the panelists said.
“That’s not enough for the whole country,” said Cavaretta. “The crux of the problem is, the cap is outdated.”
The H-2B visa
The H-2B visa program permits foreign workers to enter the U.S. temporarily to perform nonagricultural labor on a one-time, seasonal, peak-load or intermittent basis. The program requires employers to petition for the workers’ visas, after demonstrating that there are not sufficient U.S. workers to perform the labor, and that employing the foreign workers will not adversely affect wages of U.S. employees.
The visa classification was created decades ago, and is limited to the issue of 66,000 visas annually. Despite increasing scrutiny of the program under the Trump administration, additional issuances resulted in a total of 83,600 H-2B visas granted during 2017.