Seacoast employers continue to have a tough time filling positions as the summer season gets off to an unofficial start during the Memorial Day weekend, but there are some hopeful signs.

Employers have had to increase their wages to $15 per hour and add other benefits to entice people as young as 15 to accept positions, yet help wanted signs are still prevalent.

Water Country in Portsmouth, which opens for the season in June, is also offering $100 referral bonuses and free season passes for team members and up to three members of their family.

Whole Foods is building an entire team from scratch for their new Portsmouth location and is holding a job fair on Tuesday and Wednesday for new hires age 18 and older starting at $15 per hour.

Some Seacoast employers are having a hard time staffing up.

Case in point is the burger restaurant Lexie's which serves up hamburgers, fries and shakes in Dover, Exeter and at their original Portsmouth location. They've had to close up their fourth location just over the border in Newburyport, Mass., because they can't hire enough help.

"Due to staffing issues Lexie’s Newburyport will be closed until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience and will keep you all posted with more info as we can! Thanks to everyone for all your support, especially over the last year," the restaurant's representative wrote on its Facebook page.

New Hampshire has the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.8 percent.

Gov. Chris Sununu's "return to work" summer stipend program offers a $500 bonus for people who take part-time work and $1,000 to those taking full-time work.

That hasn't really kicked in yet, according to New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association CEO Mike Somers.

"It's still incredibly hard to find people and frankly I don't know that that's going to change soon. Maybe when we get to June 19, maybe that will change but we haven't seen any real movement yet," Somers told Seacoast Current.

June 19 is the day the $300 federal unemployment supplement being offered as part of President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan ends in New Hampshire. It has been blamed by many employers for making it more feasible to stay home and collect rather than take a job.

Restaurants are having to adjust to the reality of their lack of workforce by cutting back days of operation and taking items off their menus, according to Somers.

"A lot of restaurants have much more pared-back menus. There's a variety of reasons for that but part of it is that way you can run the kitchen with one less person," Somers said.

"Anecdotally, I've heard of a couple of places that are new or are trying to reopen and they haven't been able to because they don't have enough staff," Somers said.  "There was a restaurant in the Hanover-West Lebanon area they wound up having to close one day because the only two employees who showed up for work were a bartender and a cook and that's not enough to run the business."

There are some other issues at play that continue to hinder the hiring situation.

"We know there are some childcare scenarios that are problematic, a whole host of other things. Hopefully, this will play out over the next month or two and continue to get better. We are hopeful there'll be some movement at the federal level on H-2 and J-1 visas. Hopefully, more J1's are authorized to work more quickly," Somers said.

The two visa programs in the past have allowed U.S. employers to bring workers into the country temporarily for the summer. H-2B visas are initiated by an employer in the United States who takes care of the paperwork involved.

J-1 visas are defined as "educational and cultural exchange programs" administered by the Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It allows camp counselors, doctors, interns, specialists, students and trainees among others to temporarily come to the United States.

Biden announced in February he would let an order by President Donald Trump that suspended the processing of non-immigrant H-1B, L-1, H-2B, and J-1 visas expire as scheduled on March 31. Trump said the order was to stop any potential spread of coronavirus into the United States and to protect American jobs.

Maine Sens. Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I) as well as New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) asked Biden in a letter to end the order early so the application process could begin sooner rather than later.

The federal Departments of Labor and Homeland Security authorized an additional 22,000 H-2B visas, according to Collins, specifically to help with the issue of hiring summer help. In March 33,000 H-2B visas were released and have already been claimed by businesses.

J-1 visas are also being processed but at a slower pace because of travel restrictions in place in other countries because of the pandemic.

Shaheen in April appealed to Secretary of State Tony Blinken in a letter to speed up working through the backlog of J-1 applications. The State Department helped the process by waiving the requirement for J-1 applicants to appear personally.

"Given the time-sensitive nature of seasonal J-1 arrivals, it is critical that the Department expedite the processing of J-1 applications whenever and wherever possible. Therefore, I request the Department make publicly available information concerning which consulates and embassies are processing J-1 applications so that families, businesses and others can make informed decisions regarding what to expect from this season," Shaheen wrote.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNH

UNH Commencement 2021

The University of New Hampshire's commencement for the Class of 2021 was broken down into four smaller ceremonies at Wildcat Stadium on May 21 and 22. CNN's Wolf Blitzer delivered a pre-recorded keynote address and all in attendance had to wear a mask to comply with the Town of Durham's mask mandate.