FARMINGTON — A steady line of people forms at the register of Ron’s Market every day around lunchtime, their hands full of pizza, soft drinks and beer as they wait to pay and get out the door.
But when it comes to making the pizza and stocking the soft drinks and beer, there is no one to do it.
“Business is great. It’s just the staffing that’s difficult,” said Jon Bubier, who has owned the convenience store for about 15 years. “What’s the root cause of it? We don’t know. I had one girl apply in her pajamas. Those are the frustrating aspects of trying to find employees. We try and be selective, but in this environment, we’ll take a warm body.”
Convenience stores and markets are a fixture in many small towns in Maine, and sometimes they are the only place to get a sandwich or cold drink; but in rural Franklin County, Bubier and some others who run them say lately it’s been a struggle to find and retain good employees.
Since May, Bubier said, he has hired six people in an effort to fill two positions. Two of them worked a few days and then called in sick, so he let them go. Others just stopped showing up.
It is a similar story at Madore’s Market, where manager Jody Alexander said she has hired nine people since the start of summer.
“I see this as an ongoing issue that’s just going to be the new normal,” Alexander said. “I don’t expect anybody to make their life here at Madore’s. This is not a forever job, but more than three weeks would be nice.”
So what’s behind the struggle?
An economist at the liberal-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy said it is likely a combination of things, including the state’s ongoing struggle to counteract its aging population.
“Rural Maine is aging faster than the rest of the state,” said James Myall, a policy analyst for the center. “There are more people retiring rather than looking for work.”
Convenience and corner stores often rely on teenagers for summer help and after-school jobs, but lately the more young people in the state have been flocking to urban centers such as Bangor and Portland than in the past, Myall said. In addition, big-box stores are pushing out small businesses and competing for their employees.
The effect of those long-term trends has been compounded by the fact Maine is in a particularly tight labor market now, with unemployment currently below 3 percent.
The problem is not confined just to small businesses, said Mike Blanchet, president of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and an advertising sales manager at the Sun Journal newspaper, who added the low unemployment rate is a likely factor in the hiring patterns of many employers and chamber members.
In August, the chamber plans to host its first job fair, prompted by concerns from members about being able to find workers.
“It’s pretty much across the spectrum, including a lot of health-care-type businesses,” Blanchet said. “I think with these small businesses in particular, it’s hard work for basically minimum wage and tough hours. Some say people don’t want to work, but I think really they just want to work better hours so they can be home with their families.”
As the economy has been improving, not only are more people finding work, but people who dropped out of the labor market altogether around the time of the economic recession in 2008 are now returning, Myall said.
“That presents an opportunity for employers, but it’s also a challenge,” he said. “Some of these people haven’t had jobs in years, and they’re more likely to have health conditions, whether it be physical health, mental health or substance abuse disorders.”
At Madore’s, Alexander said her business has suffered since Maine voters decided to raise the minimum wage. In 2017, the minimum wage increased from $7.50 per hour to $9 an hour. It is scheduled to rise to $12 an hour by 2020.
“When the minimum wage was $7.50, we paid a little bit more,” Alexander said. “Then when it went up to $9 everyone wanted a raise. They expected to get what they called a ‘gap.’ They would say: ‘The minimum wage was $7.50. Now it’s $9. I don’t want to work for minimum wage.’”
Myall said there may be some psychological effect on employees with the rise of the minimum wage, but by and large it has not hurt small businesses.
“We have heard from people pushing to slow it down and these stories of individual businesses possibly harmed, but the data has not borne that out,” he said. “In general, unemployment has gone down and wages have risen. We’re not seeing anything in the data available that shows a bad effect on businesses or workers.”
At Steve’s Market in Wilton, manager Lauren Williams said the store has struggled to attract employees, but their prospects have improved since they started posting openings on Facebook and allowing people to apply online.
“At times the quality of employees is not up to standards,” Williams said. “You might get 20 applications and two are people you can bring in. I would agree it’s kind of fewer and farther in between.”
But she said that is part of living where she does.
“Being in a small town and working in a small store, it’s harder to get people in general,” Williams said. “You’re either here for life or you’re here for a short amount of time.”
Back at Ron’s Market, owner Jon Bubier is serving customers himself on a register during the lunch hour rush.
Nearby, employee Marsha Thomas is cleaning up the deli counter, where she makes sandwiches and serves pizza. A “Help Wanted” sign hangs in the background.
“We’ve had plenty of people apply, but they don’t work out for some reason,” said Thomas, who has worked at the market for three years. “I don’t know what the issue is. It’s not hard to fill a cooler or wait on customers.”
The job does require some night, holiday and weekend work, something Thomas said can be a deterrent. And there are special challenges that come with trying to find workers in a rural area, such as access to reliable transportation.
“Jon is wicked nice and he would do anything for anybody,” Thomas said. “So I don’t know why it’s hard. It’s not just our store. It’s every store I’ve talked to.”