Maine officials and the state’s businesses focus on bringing workers off of unemployment

Some Mainers have chosen to stay on unemployment benefits that sometimes pay them more.
Some Mainers have chosen to stay on unemployment benefits that sometimes pay them more.(Owen Kingsley)
Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 5:33 PM EDT
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Maine (WABI) - With the spikes of unemployment behind us and businesses looking forward to a crucial summer, business owners are facing a new challenge.

Many businesses, both big and small, say they’re having a hard time rehiring Mainers.

For some people, unemployment can actually pay more than what some businesses can afford to offer.

Living Innovations in Dover-Foxcroft is one of those businesses competing with unemployment.

They offer services around the state to those with intellectual disabilities.

“We’ve been told by people that they make more staying home. Based on what we offer and what they’re getting on unemployment, they’re going to choose to stay home for a while longer,” said Charles Vail, Program Manager for Living Innovations.

“Prior to the pandemic, 2 out of every 10 applicants no showed at some point, and I would suggest that right now, we’re at about 8 out of 10,” said Andrew Taranko, Maine State Director for Living Innovations.

Some think Mainers have been, and still are, abusing unemployment insurance at a higher rate.

“I think many of us assume that. It’s hard to know. We’re having to tell some of the people who we supported in the past, yes, you can come back, but not quite yet because we don’t have staff,” said Vail.

Even now, you can still receive an additional $300 from the federal government on top of your normal state unemployment benefits.

Restaurants have it tough as well.

The Fork and Spoon in downtown Bangor is another small business trying to get back on track after being shutdown by the pandemic.

They used to have around a dozen employees.

Now, they are working with just five.

“So, in the past, in the pre-pandemic time, if I had advertised for front counter staff, I would probably have 80 to 90 people apply for one position. Right now, I’m not getting any,” said Elisabeth Dean, Owner of the Fork and Spoon.

The pandemic has forced the hands of employers.

“I mean, I’ve heard from several people and an employee or two that they can make way more money being on unemployment than they can being here,” said Dean.

Not only are we seeing higher wages, we’re seeing hiring bonuses.

“We’re in a crisis mode now, so the hiring and the salaries and the bonuses are all over the place,” said Steve Hewins of Hospitality Maine.

Hewins says the pandemic is going to have to make meaningful change for workers in terms of pay now that more Mainers have seen the draw of unemployment.

“Things like minimum wage don’t even matter anymore. It’s all much, much better pay. People are coming off unemployment, they’ve been on it for a long time. My hope is that they’re interested in getting back into life again,” said Hewins.

Getting back so that businesses can make up for a lost summer in 2020.

“So, by missing out last summer, we lost a lot. This summer will be very important for the resurgence of the entire state,” said Hewins.

The Maine Department of Labor does urge businesses where workers do not show up or do not continue the hiring process to report those workers on their website.

They can investigate whether or not that person is following the proper job search criteria to stay on unemployment.

With businesses struggling with the worker shortage, the state is now involved in incentivizing folks to go back to work.

On May 24th, the state re-established job search requirements for unemployment, something they had suspended during the pandemic.

“You have to have lost your job from no fault of your own. You must be able to work, available to work, and actively seeking work,” said Laura Fortman, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor.

Some business owners say the state should have acted quicker to ease the issue.

“Unfortunately, the government has made it so it is more financially smart to go on unemployment. We’ve gotten the call, ‘hey, do you want to go out to work?’ And they’ll ask what the job is, what the pay is, and then it’ll be, nope, sorry. I make more on unemployment,” said Taneika Doucette, Manager at Complete Labor and Staffing in Bangor.

The Maine Department of Labor says there are a lot of factors contributing to the worker shortage.

Health concerns, child care, and people have been looking to change career paths.

Thousands of foreign students who typically come to work seasonal jobs in Maine won’t be available.

“And because of the pandemic and shutdowns in embassies, about 24,000 fewer immigrants and Visa workers will be here this Summer,” said Fortman.

Although the return to work search requirements are appreciated by most business owners, some think more needs to be done.

They continue to see folks trying to take advantage of the unemployment system.

“I’ll reply back like later, 2 to 3 minutes after they posted that they are inquiring about the job, and say, ‘hey, when are you available for an interview and get nothing,” said John Hafford, General Manager of Seasons Bar and Grill.

About half the states have dropped a federal $300 stipend given to those on top of their regular unemployment benefits.

Maine is not one of them.

“We do not think that the $300 is the primary impediment, and we will continue to offer the program at this point until it ends September 4th,” said Fortman.

When asked whether the $300 stipend is still viewed as necessary, some business owners disagree.

“No, I just think that it’s a disincentive to return to work for sure,” said Charles Vail.

“I personally think there should be an application as to why they think they need it, and if there’s cases they need it, then absolutely, they should have it. Of course, you hear the other side of the coin as well, too. The people who are just, hey, I’m out spending my money. That’s not really what it’s supposed to be about. I just don’t think it should be blatantly paint-brushed across everybody,” said Hafford.

In June, Governor Mills introduced the Back to Work program.

For Mainers still on unemployment, you can receive $1,500 from federal funding if you get a job.

That’s set to end or decrease July 25th.

“There needs to be multiple strategies. This was a challenge that Maine was facing pre-pandemic,” said Fortman.

As businesses return, this worker shortage is a reminder of the progress made against the pandemic.

“This pandemic was a public health crisis, and it was because of Mainers going out and getting vaccinated that we’re as optimistic as we are about this summer,” said Fortman.

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