A local ice cream shop displays a sign notifying customers they are shorter on staff this time of year.  ISLANDER PHOTO BY VICTORIA DECOSTER 

Local businesses feel fall labor squeeze  

BAR HARBOR — Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have become accustomed to signs popping up in the windows of local shops apologizing for longer waits due to fewer employees. 

Some Bar Harbor businesses have also felt the labor squeeze, especially after Labor Day. As many seasonal workers head back to school, leaf peepers and cruise ship passengers clamor for service, leaving the remaining workers to take up the slack. 

Dana Borge, manager of Choco-Latte Cafe in Bar Harbor, said he’s recently lost five or six employees.  

“I just work more. I do like 70-hour weeks,” he said.  

But for Borge, staffing issues started at the beginning of the season when he had to adjust the store’s closing time to account for the lack of workers. He’s even closed down the kitchen for a few days after some employees quit on the spot.  

“I think it’s just an overwhelming year, and a lot of people here also have other jobs,” Borge said.  

The coffee shop has filled around 500 to 550 orders per day this season, making it the busiest year on record. On Labor Day, a line stretching out the door didn’t let up until closing.  

Borge, who consistently puts in 12-hour days, said he started feeling burnt out in August, but he’s been able to catch his breath lately. Luckily, he can depend on a team of 10-12 dedicated year-round staff members willing to work overtime. 

“Instead of getting a lot of people, I just got a good amount of quality people left right now,” Borge said.  

The transition between summer’s peak and the fall season typically indicates a lull in patronage. Still, students and visa workers, who make up a large section of the service industry, leave their positions around this time to head back to school or their home country.  

Jeremy Dougherty, general manager of the Bar Harbor Inn, said there is more of a strain on the business right now than at any other point in the season.  

“I would imagine a lot of local businesses would agree that it’s one of the most difficult times of the season, because there’s such a transition, and it’s still very busy,” he said.  

Currently, the hotel is operating with 15 fewer employees than it had been during full swing.  

In addition to college kids heading back to school and seasonal staff departing to their next location, there are unanticipated, week-long gaps when an employee tests positive for COVID.  

“If you’re a guest, you probably wouldn’t notice because somebody’s filling those shifts,” Dougherty said. “A lot of people are working 65-75 [hours] pretty consistently.”  

A staff member’s schedule may consist of working front desk in the morning and then hosting at The Terrace Grill in the afternoon  

“It’s not impacting service, but it certainly impacts our endurance of what’s already been a very long season,” Dougherty said.  

And this season has been one for the books. The hotel’s restaurant is the busiest it’s ever been, “shattering last year’s record,” he said. By the end of October, Dougherty also expects hotel sales to eclipse last year’s record-setting numbers. 

“It’s definitely a tough combination to have the volume we have and then the staffing challenges that still exist,” he said.  

One way that Bill Coggins, owner of Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, is managing an unprecedented staff shortage is by housing his employees in apartments he normally rents out to other local workers.  

Coggins, who shortened store hours and put in 90-hour weeks, said a main reason the town is struggling to find workers is because there are no affordable local housing options.  

“It’s a problem all over the island,” he said. “With the resources and land available, it could be solved.”  

Victoria DeCoster

Victoria DeCoster

Victoria DeCoster covers the Bar Harbor area including town boards and committees. She recently moved to the island after graduating from Syracuse University last year. Contact Victoria with tips and story ideas at [email protected].

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