BELFAST — Ted Rakis has run Alexia’s Pizza in downtown Belfast for 27 years, where he offered takeout and indoor dining every day until the pandemic hit in March 2020. A decrease in visitors, along with other complications caused by the virus, forced him to reduce his hours. Now, with coronavirus restrictions largely lifted and an uptick in business, one obstacle to restoring business as usual remains: finding workers.

Rakis usually hires several high school kids during the school year, who will work for him part-time until they go to college, but this year he cannot seem to find any, he said. He is grateful for the staff he has, but needs more employees to be open every day again. Before the pandemic, he never had a problem finding people to work.

Right now, the restaurant is open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, with hours that vary. Rakis and his son have been working 50 hours per week at the restaurant because he has only eight employees and only a couple of them work full-time.

His customers have been understanding, but he feels bad about not being able to offer them service every day. “They understand what’s going on,” he said. “I just feel bad because I can’t be open more.”

In a market where corporations can afford to increase wages for entry-level employees, Rakis is unable to offer a pay raise or extra benefits because his business runs on a much smaller profit margin, he said.

“It’s a rough market out there. You’ve got McDonald’s starting pay at $16 per hour. I can’t do that. How am I going to fight against a corporation like that? We’re a small-time mom and pop store over here. I can’t pay high school kids $16 an hour to put toppings on a pizza. I don’t want to sound bad, but I can’t afford to pay them that 16 bucks per hour.”

Rakis said one of the biggest obstacles to increasing the number of workers in the workforce was government incentives that he thinks kept people on unemployment. He has received a few more applications since those payments ended, but nowhere near the number of applications he was getting before the pandemic.

The unemployment rate in Waldo County has actually increased slightly, by 0.4%, according to the Center for Workforce Research and Information. It was at 4.1% in September, up from 3.7% in September 2020.

Freddy Lafage, who runs the kitchen at Chase’s Daily, said he has noticed a drop in the number of job applications at the restaurant. The business has been offering outdoor seating for part of the year over the past two years and is working on a way to offer indoor seating this winter.

It had to reduce its hours of operation after the pandemic struck and has not yet increased them. “It’s been a tough time to be in the service industry,” he said.

However, Lafage has noticed an increase in business this year similar to the number of patrons the restaurant was getting before the pandemic, and at one point this summer he thought the business might have had more customers than before the pandemic.

Maine saw more than 3 million more visitors this summer than last, when strict COVID-19 restrictions were in place, according to a Maine Office of Tourism report. The state even saw more visitors this summer than in the summer of 2019.

Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dorothy Havey said people from all over the country visited Belfast this year. But she heard from a lot of restaurants about staffing problems they faced over the summer.

She said some restaurants talked with each another to coordinate their closed days so that there were restaurants open for visitors every day. But business owners in general had to fill in for positions they could not hire for. She told some businesses to ask the staff they currently have if they knew anyone who could fill positions.

She also thinks the absence of foreign workers has had an impact on the available workforce, she said. Some businesses in Belfast rely on hiring seasonal foreign workers, but there were not many of those workers this year.

Another strain on the local workforce is the dearth of housing for workers, Havey said. One business owner in Lincolnville bought a multi-unit rental property so his employees can live nearby instead of being forced to move farther away to find affordable housing.

Many complex issues are behind the workforce shortage, she said. And it is hard to predict how the shortage might affect businesses in the near future, or if the shortage will end. “I wish I had a crystal ball to predict that,” she said. “I mean, I want it to get better, I want the COVID situation to improve.”

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