Business owners in Taos and across the country are still struggling to find employees.
Originally, many people speculated that federal unemployment benefits, enhanced significantly during the pandemic, were the main reason behind that problem. Those added benefits, however, ended on Sept. 4, according to New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS). Nearly a month later, businesses are still worried about the lack of job applications, which begs the question: What else is happening here?
The NMDWS, in August reported that Taos County had the second highest unemployment rate in New Mexico. The county had a reported labor force of 15,006 people, with 13,827 employed and 1,179 unemployed.
Janie Chermak is a professor and chair of the economics department at UNM. She said the added federal unemployment benefits are not to blame.
“I think you can look at the states that discontinued those employment benefits months ago, and I don't believe that they're in any better shape than other states are. So I would say that there has to be, I think, a number of different driving forces,” said Chermak.
She points to the possibility that COVID-19 is still affecting the labor force. She said maybe people are weighing the potential health risks of going back to work. As to how they are managing to not work, Chermak said that it’s possible they were able to save–or move in with relatives, where work is consolidated to one or two persons.
“You could look at it as a labor shortage, or you could look at it as a shortage in the compensation that's being offered,” said Chermak.
She said she knows of a few businesses that have raised their wages to attract more workers. However, factors such as finding child care are just one of the causes for people to get back to work. Chermak said there's “a myriad” of different reasons at play.
But she doesn’t know the answer to ending the labor shortage, and says the country needs “a very creative solution” to fix it.
Effects of the pandemic
“I found that going back to work was kind of discouraging, because now you have to go to work and then you're not making as much – you have to work all these hours and it's just kind of hard from making a lot more money at home ... versus going to work and working,” said Jonathan Romero, 20, who is currently unemployed. Romero said he lost his job when he was sick with COVID several months ago.
He lives with his girlfriend in a rental property, and they share a vehicle together. When he was on the added federal unemployment benefits, he was able to cover rent and other expenses. After that ended, he said the state unemployment was barely enough to get by on.
Romero says he has been trying to get back to work, but says that hasn't been easy to do. He said that he has no blemishes on his work history, but has tried to follow up in person and over the phone at “6 or 8 different places" without successfully landing a new job.
“I just find it really interesting because everyone says, everywhere is hiring, but you go and you apply and no one gets back to you,” said Romero.
NMSU assistant professor of sociology, Julie Steinkopf, said the labor shortage is not going away anytime soon. Like Chermak, Steinkopf said the labor shortage has many different factors contributing to it. She said the labor shortage and income inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic and will likely continue.
“Because of the structure of capitalism, because of the structure of the labor market, because of student loans ... each subsequent generation will not experience those high income levels throughout the course of their life … [like] the Baby Boomers did,” said Steinkopf.
She added that the younger people who tend to fill service jobs are not driven as much by wages. They also value personal fulfillment in their jobs.
“They want to lead an authentic life, they want to lead a life that helps them feel self actualized,” said Steinkopf.
Steinkopf said that communities with tourist-driven economies, like Taos, are also seeing a trend of young people moving away to find jobs that better suit them and pay better wages.
“Right now, even in larger cities, there's just a nationwide shortage. And the feedback I'm getting is if the larger cities can't find cooks for their restaurants, what makes you think they want to go to these little towns?” said Lee Hsu, owner of Hunan Chinese Restaurant.
Hsu has to use hiring and recruitment companies in larger cities that find experienced cooks specifically suited for his restaurant.
“I think when COVID shut down a lot of restaurants last year, a lot of people either changed careers or a lot of people just, especially for Asian restaurants, left the country,” said Hsu.
As a result, Hsu said he has not been able to open for dine-in service.
Marshall Thompson, chef and owner of Donabe, said he has found some new employees since speaking with the Taos News on this topic earlier in the year, but he knows employees remain hard to come by.
“I really suffered through the summer with staffing,” said Thompson.
He was able to recently hire more people and hopes to open the restaurant six days a week, instead of five days.
“I've always had enough [employees] to be open six to seven days a week. But it's still always been understaffed, like there's always been room for one more person,” said Thompson.
He raised wages to attract applicants, along with including a retention bonus if an employee stays on past 90 days.
Bill Gaydosh, owner and general manager for Taos Mountain Outfitters, also raised wages to incentivize workers, along with holiday bonuses and a 401K. However, he chooses on purpose to keep advertising minimal.
“I'm probably one of the few businesses in town that doesn't have a help wanted sign hanging on the front window. I want people to wander in on their own and ask about employment ... that's the person that's motivated; they want to work. And that's basically how I found the four [employees] I have,” he said.
While his businesses in Taos, Red River and Canyon, Texas, have all been doing fairly well – he said he is struggling with supply chain problems. He pointed to large empty shelves in the upstairs area of his business, which he said would typically be filled with merchandise.
“The supply chain is just backed up," he said. "I mean, I'm still getting pieces of orders from our March 2021 orders that are trickling in, and, you know, it's spring and summer stuff that I really don't need now.”
Lisa Gordon, owner of Copy Queen, said it took her weeks after posting ads to Facebook and Craigslist to find a new hire, bringing her total staff to three people.
“My employees had the most difficult time because they were working, you know, twice or three times as hard until we found this extra help,” said Gordon.
Choosing not to work
Jamie Akana-Monaghan, 32, said she had to choose between having a job and having healthcare coverage. Akana-Monaghan is married and has a nine-year-old son. They are currently on Medicaid which covers the majority of her doctor visits, eye care and dental. It does not cover major surgeries. Her husband works for $15 an hour.
Akana-Monaghan said to go back to work she would have to earn $15 to $17 an hour to make ends meet. Because of her husband's wages and benefits she recently received from the death of a relative, they are unable to qualify for food stamps, and going back to work would disqualify her from receiving Medicaid benefits.
“My inhalers alone are $75 a piece. I have a lot of health problems," Akana-Monaghan said. "How do you pay for therapy ... and all the other things that really people should have access to?"
She said that in her experience company health insurance plans don't cover enough of her medical expenses. Her husband’s health insurance through his work was also not enough and led to her to apply for Medicaid.
“It was absolutely horrible. He had to go to the hospital because we had the flu, and we needed the diagnosis so he could get medication and stuff, and we’re still paying like a $3,000 hospital bill ... They covered some of it but not much,” said Akana-Monaghan.
Her family said with her health concerns it’s best that she stays on Medicaid. Meanwhile, the death benefits she received are going toward her backlog of bills. She said she had hoped to use those funds for her son’s college education.
Before the pandemic, she left her job working at a preschool and was earning $8.50 an hour.
“I asked for a [50 cent] raise [to $9 an hour]. And they laughed at me. After being with them for three years,” said Akana-Monaghan.