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July 9, 2018

Help wanted at Maine's small-town markets

While Maine's tight labor market is affecting businesses of many types, it seems to be hitting small, rural convenience stores especially hard.

"Business is great. It's just the staffing that's difficult," Jon Bubier, owner of Ron's Market in Farmington, told the Morning Sentinel. "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."

Maine's unemployment rate is already at a historic low of less than 3%. Rural areas are facing an even more acute shortage of workers.

"Rural Maine is aging faster than the rest of the state," said James Myall, a policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy. "There are more people retiring rather than looking for work."

Traditionally, the state's mom-and-pop stores have relied on teenagers to supply summer and after-school help. But more teens are now flocking to cities and to jobs at big-box stores, Myall added.

When the country stores find employees, they often don't stay.

Since May, Bubier said, he has hired six people in an effort to fill two positions. At Madore's Market, a small store that sells beer, soda and pizza a mile from Ron's in Farmington, manager Jody Alexander said she has been forced to make nine hires this 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."

She thinks part of the problem may be the state-mandated minimum wage, which jumped last year from $7.50 per hour to $9 per hour and rose to $10 per hour this year.

"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."

But Myall discounts the effect of the higher wage requirement.

"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.

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