shortMOUNT DESERT ISLAND—The season started slowly as state regulations to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19 kept tourists away. Now that tourists are here, businesses struggle to accommodate as many customers as they can with limited staff.
Many business owners point to the lack of foreign workers as part of the reason they are short staffed this season. Others acknowledge some people are not willing to take jobs that will put them in contact with the public during a pandemic. “I’ve heard people don’t feel comfortable in restaurants because they’re around a lot of people,” said Susan Saunders, owner of Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast. Saunders and other business owners mentioned having people ask about open positions but not show up for the interview.
“We’re short staffed but managing. It’s all hands on deck,” said Isabelle Legault, director of Human Resources at Witham Family Properties, which owns eight hotels in Bar Harbor. Legault said people in administration were pitching in on the front lines this year, serving continental breakfast or cleaning.
Housekeeping takes twice as long in the age of COVID-19, Legault noted, with extra cleaning protocols followed.
Annette Stewart, owner of Hinckley’s Dreamwood Cottages in Bar Harbor, does not have extra administrative staff to draw from. As owner of the small family business, she said, “I’m cleaning rooms. I’ve been doing the work with helpful friends.”
She had J-1 Visa holders lined up to work for her this year, as well as returning staff, but nobody was able to come back, she said. Despite advertising, she has not been able to hire new staff. “It’s okay, I understand,” Stewart said.
Stewart compensates for her lack of employees by “purposefully not booking rooms,” she said, “because I don’t have the staff to do the work.” She estimates her bookings are down by about 25 percent this year.
Several restaurants have cut back on their hours or days of operation, including Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast. Normally open seven days a week, Saunders said she is now closed every Tuesday “because we don’t have enough staff.”
And the staff Saunders does have is extremely busy, she said, “with additional stuff to do between customers” to get all surfaces cleaned and sanitized.
One positive change this year, Saunders said, has been adding outdoor seating. “A lot of people enjoy that,” she said. She plans to continue outdoor seating in seasons to come.
Cody Gordon, owner and operator of Leary’s Landing Irish Pub and Project Social in Bar Harbor, said he too feels the pinch of too-few staff members at a time when safety protocols make “twice as much work” for his staff. Gordon said he makes up for this by working more himself. “I work through the day,” he said, “from 7 a.m. through 10:30 [at night].”
Gordon said he has also scaled back the open hours at both establishments. Leary’s closes at 10 p.m. each night now, he said, including on the weekends. Project Social is closed one day a week.
With some of his young staff going back to school now, Gordon said he is “hoping to stay open through the end of October.” However, he admitted, “a lot is up in the air.”
James Lindquist, co-owner of Red Sky, a Southwest Harbor restaurant, said cutting days of operation and allowing overtime are two ways he’s found to get through the season so far. Lindquist said that of the five days a week he is open, he himself is working as a line chef all five days. His sous–chef works 14-hour days, “going into overtime by his third day,” Lindquist said.
Now that some of the servers are leaving to go to college, “there don’t seem to be any replacements,” Lindquist said. He noted, however, that even in previous years, fall has been a difficult time for staffing. “This time last year, we started staffing people week to week,” he recalled.
Lindquist said he wished there were a community bulletin board for job postings. He has tried using Facebook, but said his posts get “bumped to the bottom.” Most of his jobs have been filled by word of mouth. “If there were a real local employment bulletin board, that would be wonderful,” Lindquist said.
“We were pretty fortunate,” said Adam Fraley, co-owner of Nor’Easter Pound & Market in Northeast Harbor. Despite a slow start to the season, he said. “we’ve been pretty much where we want to be” in terms of days and hours open.
One complication he has found was, with a lot of his employees not able to work full-time because of a second job, “we’ve had to have double the number of employees,” he said. He said he thinks being in Northeast Harbor, away from the bustle of Bar Harbor, has helped attract employees.
“We love the staff that we do have,” Fraley said. “We’ve been really, really lucky. Being in Northeast Harbor and being local has helped us put together a great team.”
James Allen, who owns and operates boat tour companies in Northeast Harbor and Bar Harbor, said he has made up for a shortage of staff by canceling some tours. Tours that do run are at 50 percent capacity, for safety.
Allen said that with the half-full boats, “it feels very busy, but unfortunately financially, it’s not great for us. We’re slightly better than breaking even.”
The two companies, Lulu Lobster Boat Tours and Sea Princess Cruises, both had shortages due to some seasonal staff not returning. “We’re running on a skeleton crew,” Allen said, which allows less flexibility in the schedule.
Allen said Lulu Lobster Boat Tours is losing one boat captain to the start of the school year, but he is not sure about hiring a new one. “With our tour boats, you can’t just hire a guy off the street,” Allen said. Licensed captains need to be trained for the specific route.
The season normally goes through Oct. 20. “We won’t push it this year,” Allen said, noting that they have rolled up the windows on the Sea Princess to let the air circulate. While that’s fine in nice weather, he said, it will get cold in the fall.
“One nice thing is… when we have to cancel a trip, it isn’t so bad,” Allen noted. “We’re just breaking even anyway.”