PHIPPSBURG — Seasonal businesses in the Midcoast have had to reduce hours, find creative solutions, or stretch staff to the limits due to a lack of qualified help this summer.

Restaurants, hotels, and other parts of the hospitality industry have all had difficulty finding employees that fit the seasonal nature of many of the Midcoast’s primarily tourist-driven businesses. While the exact causes behind the labor shortage are complicated and varied, they can be partially attributed to a lack of H-2B visas supplied by the federal government.

The H-2B program allows businesses to hire seasonal foreign workers, typically when they can’t find local help. Capped at 66,000 visas, in previous years there was an exemption for returning workers. That exemption expired, leaving some businesses in southern Maine short staffed.

For the Midcoast, most businesses have steered clear of H-2B visas entirely because of their volatility.

“I did the H-2B program years ago, and it was the same last time around. There was a tremendous insecurity of how the program would roll,” said Bob Smith, owner of Sebasco Estates in Phippsburg.

Sebasco’s tourist season stretches slightly longer than the typical college or high school break, and it’s those shoulder seasons that make finding help difficult.

Smith said he tried to get involved in the H-2B program again this year, only for his efforts to lead nowhere. “We decided to put our foot back into the water, for the first time in years, and sure enough the same problems that had happened before.”

The lack of help has put a damper on business, and stretched his local employees to the limit. “As a crew we have always managed the last four or five weeks of the year to get all hands on deck and get through the end of the season. This year it’s like the entire season. The first month and a half was very difficult on everybody who works here, who are American. Some don’t mind making a little extra money, but you’ve got to balance.”

Smith has been an outspoken critic of how the H-2B visa program has been run in the past, especially considering some of the rules and regulations surrounding it. Particularly, rules that state H-2B employees can only work for the employer that brought them in and no one else.

“When an H-2B worker comes, they want to work. They want to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week,” said Smith. “Right now, it doesn’t allow for that.”

The H-2B issues are only applicable to some businesses, however. Others, like Solo Bistro in Bath, simply aren’t able to find enough help locally. The restaurant, which recently announced it would be closing in September, has been open seven days a week in the past. This year, they have only been able to open five days a week.

“This year, we’ve stayed at our winter pace, which is four days a week, right up until June,” said Will Neilson, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Pia.

Neilson said he’s talked to other restaurateurs and heard similar troubles. While Solo Bistro considered going through the H-2B visa program, they decided not to due to the complicated nature of applying. “We thought about it, and there’s sort of a bunch of regulatory red tape you have to jump through.”

Why the help isn’t available locally is likely a complex issue, and Neilson said he attributes it to the seasonal nature of the economy and a lack of investment in education and well-paying jobs.

“I would argue that we’re seeing the results of long-term causes and it’s going to take a long time to sort it out.”

Five Islands Lobster Company in Georgetown has also struggled to keep employees. The restaurant portion of the business normally opens seven days a week after Memorial Day, but had to restrict hours until July due to lack of staff.

“It’s pretty scary, honestly,” said Gina Longbottom, co-owner. “It was pretty scary when we thought we might not be able to open at full capacity.”

She said that the past summer has been a “nightmare” when it comes to getting and keeping staff. “This year we had trouble right up until July to get a full staff, which is really unprecedented.”

The reason why they’ve had trouble is hard to nail down, as it hasn’t ever happened before. Typically, Five Islands hires local kids looking for a summer job, but has been extending the job to anyone willing. “We’ve never had trouble finding kids to work before,” said Longbottom.

Not all businesses are struggling to find staff, but those that don’t have issues typically have long-time staff return each year. Candy Gregory, owner of Taste of Maine in Woolwich, said she’s been incredibly fortunate to have a regular set of staff.

“We’re pretty lucky. We have plenty of help. I don’t know how we got so lucky, but we do,” said Gregory. “I’ve heard that from a lot of people, that they’re short on help and they’re crying for it. I’m lucky enough not to be like that.”

Taste of Maine is approaching 40 years in business, and many of the employees have stuck with the business for decades. “Some have been here 30 years, 35 years. We only have to hire a handful of kids,” said Gregory. “We go through our run, some come and go, but the majority of them stay. They keep coming back.”

Kali Liimatainen, general manager of the Marriott Residence Inn in Bath, said she has also avoided staffing issues. She has heard from other businesses in places like Bar Harbor that have had trouble, which they have managed to avoid. “We’ve actually had better luck this year than we had last year.”

The Marriott has avoided using H-2B, favoring the “J-1” program, which allows students from other countries to come to the United States in a variety of visa categories, including interns and trainees.

“We put in for J1 visas and we actually had a couple of returning students this year, which helped us get a couple of the J1 visas,” said Liimataninen.

Other institutions in the Midcoast are fully staffed, but still had trouble finding help. The Daniel in Brunswick, a hotel located on a historic property, is an example.

“We’re lucky enough right now to be fully staffed,” said Linda Whittier, assistant general manager of the hotel. “We definitely have had our trials and tribulations finding enough staff.”

The Daniel avoids using H-2B because it wants to employ local staff, but finding staff that fit the requirements and work ethic has been difficult. “I don’t know what the rhyme or reason behind it is. We have luckily not had to restrict our hours, but we are open 14 hours which makes it challenging,” said Whittier. In some cases, managers have had to cover shifts to bridge the gap when staff was shorthanded.

For Smith, a lot of the issues he’s seeing could be solved with a more sensible visa program for seasonal workers. He acknowledges there’s a stigma that comes with hiring foreign workers, but also pointed out the difficulty of hiring solely local help. “Bar Harbor is a town of 5,000. Roughly 3.3 million visitors came to Acadia last year,” he said. “How does a town of 5,000 handle 3.3 million visitors without a little help?