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Maine businesses raise wages to retain workers, but still struggle to find new ones

An ice cream shop advertises for help Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Bar Harbor, Maine. America’s tourist destinations are facing a severe worker shortage just as they try to rebound from a devastating year lost to the pandemic.
Robert F. Bukaty
An ice cream shop advertises for help Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Bar Harbor, Maine. America’s tourist destinations are facing a severe worker shortage just as they try to rebound from a devastating year lost to the pandemic.

When Field Glover took over Nichols Plumbing in Brewer last March, he made what he said was an easy decision to raise wages for his workers. One of Glover's employees had left within the first two weeks, and he said that's when he knew there could be a problem.

"We’re asking people to go in other people’s houses and jet out their sewer lines and deal with some pretty nasty stuff," Glover said. "I just didn’t feel like, personally, that was equal to running a counter at Dunkin Donuts."

Glover raised hourly wages by $2-to-$6 an hour for his employees. That helped keep them on the books, as did raising the retirement match, adding snacks to the breakroom and buying new uniforms and equipment, he said.

Glover is not alone. Across Maine, businesses big and small have been raising hourly wages and adding new benefits as a way to address staffing shortages. Employers say those efforts have largely helped retain current employees.

Attracting new ones, however, is a different story.

The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth made a $5 million investment in hourly wage increases for its employees last summer. Pay grades for hourly workers at JAX rose 10%, Chad Cotter, the laboratory's director of talent acquisition, said.

Restaurants and hotels across the state have been raising hourly wages as well, said Matt Lewis, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine. Some are offering their employees more paid time off or help with tuition.

Lewis said his members see higher wages as a reward for employees who have been working during the pandemic, but it's also been a way to protect their current workers from being courted away by other industries.

"There’s the senior living centers, there’s ad agencies, I mean you could pretty much name it," Lewis said. "They are coming after hospitality workers because they have a customer service background and [they're] wanting them to be in those industries and offering, in some cases, very good pay and benefits."

Hourly wages went up last July at the Bangor Police Department as part of its collective bargaining negotiations with the city over a new three-year contract.

Sgt. Wade Betters, the public information officer for the department, said the new contract was competitive. But other towns are catching on.

"Now these other towns are trying to match and go above the Bangor PD contract, because they’re wise enough to think that they don’t want to lose their veteran officers," he said. "It's quite a game."

Northern Light Health raised entry-level wages to $15 an hour last spring — and then raised them again near the end of last year to compete with all the other employers who had adjusted their wages as well.

Housekeepers, health screeners and other entry-level employees at Northern Light now start at $17 an hour, said Paul Bolin, senior vice president and chief people officer for the hospital network. Certified nursing assistants now start at $19 an hour.

Bolin said he isn't necessarily seeing more employees leave, and the network's retention rates are relatively consistent with what he saw before the pandemic.

"But when people do leave, there are fewer people to apply to replace them, and that makes the challenge much more dramatic in terms of our ability to operate," he said.

Northern Light has about 2,400 positions open, which Bolin said is about double the number before the pandemic. He said he used to see 20-to-30 applications for an entry-level job, but now it's in the single digits.

Still, Bolin sees the current labor challenges as an opportunity.

"We’re experiencing what other states will experience in the coming years, and so it’s time for Maine to find solutions first to these problems," he said. "That puts us in the unique spot of needing to do that, but also that means that other states have younger populations, and so we have an opportunity to try to attract them to our state."

To expand the pool of potential workers, Bolin says Northern Light is trying to strengthen its ties with the Congolese and Afghan communities in southern Maine.

HospitalityMaine is ramping up an effort to secure jobs in the industry for formerly incarcerated people and military veterans, Lewis said. The group is also relying on the fact that Maine will get more workers through the H-2B visa program for the first half of the year, and it's hopeful federal officials will approve even more for the summer tourist season.

But if staffing shortages persist, Lewis said restaurants and hotels will simply have to find more ways to operate with fewer people.