Second in a two-part series

Will work for rent

Workers’ woes in Taos; some businesses help with higher wages

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Clarification appended.

It’s known around town as the Taos two-step, and it’s not a dance for Sunday nights, but a way of life for people trying to keep a roof above their heads.

While minimum wage in New Mexico is increasing within certain cities, employees in Taos find themselves struggling in the town that pays the state minimum of $7.50 per hour while the cost of living refuses to give way to the financial woes of the locals. Between the cost of renting and the amount employees are paid, many see Taos as one of the most difficult places to live while having two or sometimes three different jobs. Efforts are underway by community members to try and increase the minimum wage to alleviate some of the financial burden, yet calculated living wage in Taos is still far above what many employees in the town are currently making. 

“The rate of living in Taos is incredibly disproportionate to the income level,” said Taos two-stepper Aubrey Guzman, “so [working more than one job] is necessary to pay for life.”

Guzman is not alone in working multiple jobs to pay for life in town. As a newcomer to Taos, she says it is comparatively harder to stay in Taos than other places she has lived. Moving from Texas, Guzman says life in Taos is “on financial hard mode,” and others can agree. Minimum wage in Taos is set at $7.50 per hour. Stores such as Smith’s or Albertsons pay higher wages. However, workers and community members are saying it’s just not enough to keep up with the cost of housing and utilities.

The rate of $7.50 per hour equates to an annual salary of $15,600. With an increase to $8.50 per hour, workers would be earning $17,680 annually before taxes and any other deductions. Deductions such as insurance, utilities and other amenities can easily take out more than $200 of a worker’s monthly salary. 

The Home Rule Committee in Taos has heard about the problems of low-wage workers and has been working to increase the minimum wage within the town closer to the estimated living wage. In Taos, a living wage calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is $10.80 for a single adult. The committee has begun a process to move Taos to being a “home rule” town, which would mean it would have the authority to govern itself and set wages within the town. Citing other cities in New Mexico that have raised their minimum wage, members of the committee say it would benefit Taos to increase the wages for the betterment of employment in the town.

“Part of the reason we always see these help wanted signs at places that have the lowest wages is because people really can’t afford to make it there,” said Darien Fernandez, town councilman and committee member. “It becomes a situation where it’s almost more advantageous for them financially to continue to receive whatever [social welfare] benefits they receive than it is to strive to work for $8.50 an hour at a job they might not get 40 hours a week on.”

Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces are among some of the cities in New Mexico that have increased their wages beyond the state minimum in the last few years. Santa Fe currently sits at $11.09 per hour. Las Cruces has gone up to $9.20, while Albuquerque has increased to $8.80 as of the beginning of 2017. A wage increase in Taos would benefit those working at the state minimum and could potentially alleviate some of the financial pressure from the housing situation in Taos that has many locals and newcomers scraping the bottoms of their wallets.

Some businesses in Taos, such as Guerrilla Graphix,  have worked to build a reputation from the beginning of paying their employees a living wage. "We have never paid an employee minimum wage," said owner Travis Parkin in an email. "Our average employee earns $15.25 per hour.  We also have an established profit sharing program which provides additional earnings to every one of our employees based on their productivity. Our average employee receives a monthly profit sharing check of approximately $600 in addition to their already much higher-than-average hourly wage."  

According to a collection of listings on Craigslist in the area, the average price for a two-bedroom rental in Taos is more than $1,300 per month, whereas a one-bedroom space will cost a tenant $845 on average. In Española, a two-bedroom average monthly cost is $807. In Santa Fe, the average for one- and two-bedroom rentals is $890 and $1,540, respectively. A single person in Santa Fe working an assumed 40 hours per week on the city’s minimum wage would pay 50 percent of their monthly income to afford a one-bedroom apartment. In Taos, that same person making the minimum wage would spend 70 percent of their monthly income on rent.

“It’s ridiculous, the rent in this town,” said former Ace Hardware employee Valerie Barton. “People are saying there is no way anyone can live here, you have to have two or three jobs to make it.”

Despite the disparity in earning versus expenditures in Taos, a minimum wage increase hasn’t formally been proposed by the town council yet. A statewide minimum wage increase was rejected at the state level by Gov. Susana Martinez in April. Senate Bill 386 would have increased the minimum wage across the state to $9 per hour in April of 2018 and would have also increased the training wages for new employees. 

Business owners in Taos have said many employees don’t have the proper work ethic to be able to keep their jobs and overall have a lack of training in basic job skills. To address the problem, the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Taos is offering assistance to local young adults for basic work training, as well as the basics needed to get a job and hold that job.

“We’re seeing a huge challenge with our community members not being successful finding employment,” said RMYC Director Ben Thomas. “It’s hard work, but if it were easy, you wouldn’t gain as much out of it.”

At RMYC, Thomas and his staff hire on workers between 16 and 25 for seasonal terms of service in which they work on community projects and undergo specific training on both personal and professional levels. This training often includes résumé writing, how to work alongside co-workers and how to develop a good work ethic. The work performed by the group is often outdoors and physical; members learn the value of their efforts and develop a work ethic they can take back into the community, according to Thomas.

In addition to learning valuable life skills for the job market, members of the RMYC receive a biweekly stipend of $760 for their work. While Thomas admits the organization is not the end-all solution to the employment or employee problems in Taos, he does believe the organization can offer a great starting point for both employers and their workers in Taos. Employers and employees understand that Taos is a difficult town to live in, and though companies have taken it upon themselves to strive to pay more than minimum wage, those living in Taos are still trying to cope with the elevated housing and rental market.

“Rent is so high,” said Guzman. “Comparatively, three bedrooms [elsewhere] average what I’m paying for one bedroom here. The jobs seem to be fruitful if you’re OK working for minimum wage, but everything that pays a living [wage] is scarce.

Clarification: Guerilla Graphix pays its employees more than minimum wage and offers other benefits.

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