The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent Great Resignation on the labor force is clear, according to the latest annual employment report from the state.

The Maine Department of Labor’s annual employment figures for 2021 shows that the number of people working in Knox County fell for the second consecutive year. The decline in people working is occurring even though most employers report difficulty in filling positions.

There were 15,460 people working in Knox County during 2021, down from 16,210 in 2020, and 18,230 in pre-pandemic 2019. That is a decline of 2,770 workers (15 percent) in two years.

While fewer people are working, those remaining workers saw their pay increase. The median annual wage for Knox County workers in 2021 was $47,019. This is up 2.1 percent from $46,048 in 2020, and 4.5 percent more than in 2019.

“I think there are a number of factors impacting our labor participation rate during the ongoing pandemic. Key factors affecting workforce participation include age, birth rates and migration,” said Andy O’Brien who handles communications for the AFL-CIO. He cited a report from the Federal Reserve of Kansas City.

He said Maine remains the oldest state in the nation by median age and more and more baby boomers are retiring every day.

“Many of them decided to retire permanently during the pandemic because they didn’t want to risk exposure to COVID and are not returning to the workforce,” the labor union spokesman said.

He pointed out that this was not a new trend.

“A lot of employers were struggling to find employees before the pandemic. But as we continue to age as a population it has gotten more difficult for employers. At the same time, our birth rate has been falling for years and this has been a key factor in declining school enrollment. Work participation increases as young people enter their 20s and declines later in life as folks retire. There’s no sign that this trend is reversing in any way, so workers could have more leverage in the job market for years to come depending on economic conditions,” O’Brien said.

While fewer Mainers are reaching working age and more Mainers are retiring, the Midcoast has not experienced a high rate of migration of younger workers to take some of these jobs.

“One way we could address this issue is with more affordable housing options, but currently there just isn’t enough affordable housing here to house the workforce we need,” O’Brien said.

“Finally, a major challenge for parents right now is finding child care. A large number of child care centers in Maine closed during the pandemic and never reopened. It was already a crisis before the pandemic and now it’s even worse. If we had more affordable child care options, more parents would be able to go to work full time,” the labor spokesman said.

He said employers can no longer subsidize wages with the “the quality of life premium” of living in Maine to attract workers.

“They need to start offering wages and benefits that are competitive with the rest of New England. There’s a myth among some employers that people are simply too lazy to apply for jobs because they get by on government aid. Frankly, this is ignorant and malicious thinking. We could bring back indentured servitude in Maine and we’d still have workforce challenges. The bottom line is that our government needs to take an active role in addressing this problem. We need to better subsidize affordable housing and child care because right now the free market is only making these basic necessities more and more expensive and further out of reach for working people,” O’Brien said.

The median price of a single-family home in Knox County reached a record high $425,000 during the past three months, according to the Maine Association of Realtor. Dollartimes.com said that to afford to buy a $425,000 home, with an $85,000 down payment, a person or family would need to earn at least $94,995 annually. That is based on current interest rates and a 30-year loan.

The Maine Department of Labor report showed a wide range of pay in Knox County depending on the job.

The median annual wage for the 1,390 people who worked in food preparation in Knox County was $33,780. That ranged from $53,577 for chefs and head cooks to $28,841 for fast food workers.

Restaurants have been particularly hit by the lack of workers. Cafe Miranda, a popular Rockland restaurant, closed in June after nearly 30 years in operation. Owner and chef Kerry Altiero said his inability to find chefs was the reason for the closing.

In June, Altiero said the hospitality industry has been facing a labor shortage for the past several years.

“It had been endemic, particularly in the hospitality industry and now it’s acute. Now it’s endemic everywhere,” he said.

He said Cafe Miranda is not the first restaurant to close and expects he will not be the last.

There were 1,680 people working in sales throughout Knox County in 2021 with a median wage of $38,211. The 440 cashiers within that grouping earned $28,208 annually.

The 1,900 people employed in office and administrative support jobs had a median wage of $39,929. That includes $39,549 for secretaries and administrative assistants; $44,320 for bookkeepers and accountants; and $53,306 for postal carriers, according to the state labor department report.

The 1,270 people in production jobs in Knox County had a median annual wage of $41,789. Welders, for example, earned on average $45,726.

The annual median wage for the 1,320 people who worked in transportation was $37,782. Captains, mates and pilots aboard vessels were paid $67,740; drivers of heavy trucks and tractor trailers were paid $43,630; and drivers of light trucks were paid $44,262, according to the state.

The 710 people who work in building and ground maintenance were paid an annual wage of $35,521 with janitors and cleaners earning $34,591 and groundskeepers $36,780.

There were 970 direct health care workers and 900 health care support workers. The average wage for the direct health care workers was $80,842 and support workers $34,069. Pharmacists earned $128,699, veterinarians $109,358, registered nurses $68,989. The median annual wage for home health care workers was $30,872.

The median wage for the 980 people in education and library services was $46,782.

The median annual wage for construction workers — who totaled 900 in 2021 — was $47,151.

Business management jobs paid $85,816 with chief executive officers making a median annual wage of $124,757.

Other occupations and their annual median salaries were: legal $66,639; computers and math operations workers $97,142; art, design, and entertainment $57,289.

The Knox County annual median wage of $47,109 is less than the statewide median of $53,230.