As tourists and locals stroll about a newly reopened town, they may have to rethink their plans for social outings due to an ongoing labor shortage – which is impacting not just Taos, but the rest of the country as well.
Most local businesses, particularly restaurants and bars, are struggling to get employees to come back to work, thereby restricting their ability to fully reopen for business. Looking for a weeknight meal out or a simple stay at a hotel, especially around the Enchanted Circle, remains unusually difficult, even after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifted pandemic-related restrictions last week.
The national unemployment rate currently sits at 5.5 percent, down from the mid-pandemic high of 13 percent in May of 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the most recent available data shows Taos County’s current unemployment rate is almost double the national average – at 10 percent.
While employers struggle to find enough workers to fill their weekly schedules, employees have been using their time out of work to their advantage, becoming pickier in the jobs they choose. Meanwhile, the state is hoping a back-to-work bonus of $1,000 will incentivize people to end their unemployment insurance, which was increased by an extra $300 per week for beneficiaries through Sept. 6.
Lucas Motsinger, general manager at The Gorge Bar & Grill in Taos Plaza, answered phones, tended bar, and bussed tables Saturday (July 3). He said the restaurant was short six people that day. At 7 p.m., a half hour before closing time, there was an hour wait to get a table. “It doesn’t seem like anybody wants to work. We have less than half of our normal crew,” said Motsinger, who is working with a total staff of 19, down from around 50 before the pandemic.
Motsinger said it has been stressful on the crew that has chosen to come back, with many employees pulling overtime. “I had one cook with 30 hours of overtime,” he said. “It’s really hard on everybody over here. It’s a lot of hours and people are gonna burn out.”
The situation isn’t helped by the fact they can’t seem to find any high schoolers looking for part-time work either. “Normally this time of the year, right after graduation, we usually are flooded with high school kids getting ready to go to college,” Motsinger said, adding, “and we just haven’t seen any of that this year. We’re usually having to turn people away.”
Motsinger said the restaurant has raised hourly wages for all non-tipped employees with the hope of attracting more candidates, but that hasn’t helped so far. “I’ve been talking to some restaurants and they’re offering up to $17 an hour for cooks and they’re not getting applications,” he said.
He believes there’s one main reason for the worker shortage. “Unemployment [insurance] is a big part of it I believe,” Motsinger said. “People are getting more money than they would have made by working.”
Others believe there’s more to the problem.
Donabe Asian Kitchen is another restaurant that has been adversely affected by a small worker pool. Owner Marshall Thompson said it has been hard explaining to hungry guests why they can’t serve them, even with open tables. ‘It’s crazy because we can’t do any more volume, and we have to explain that we don’t have anybody to serve,” he said.
Thompson said he feels unemployment insurance is definitely an issue, but realizes that restaurant industry pay also needs to remain competitive. “Most people who left the industry, they quoted working conditions and lack of pay,” he said. “... People had time to reevaluate their lives based on the amount of downtime we had. They saw what it was like to get these higher amounts per month to live on.”
In response, he has since raised the wages he pays for all of his hourly workers by two to three dollars and hour, but said he is now passing that cost on to the customers.
“It’s been hard for restaurants to raise their prices to accommodate a workforce that needs to make more money because of economic factors,” he said. “But, you know, the push is on now, I mean, prices are gonna go up.”
Thompson said he has always kept his wages competitive, but has had to pay people more than he planned “just to keep my doors open.” He also offered a retention bonus for new staff. “Hopefully a lot of other restaurants start to do similar measures, whatever they are capable of.”
Marcos Aragon, owner of newly established restaurant El Conejo, said that while he is not directly affected by a lack of workers, he is still indirectly affected by other restaurants’ low employee numbers. “I’ve noticed around town some of our busiest days are because there’s just a lack of other places open,” he said.
“I think the world is just taking a long time to get back on pace,” Aragon continued. “People were forced to take a look in the mirror and decide if they want to work in the same industry that they were previously working in. So I don’t blame just any one thing for all of this. It’s just kind of what happens when you try to piece life back together after what we’ve all gone through.”
Aragon said he believes service at many restaurants is “gonna take a little longer and cost a little more these days,” and said he doesn’t anticipate a return to full normalcy until next summer.
Noah Medina, food and beverage manager for Hotel Don Fernando, said the lodging industry also can’t find enough manpower. “Two people out of every 10 actually show up for their interview,” he said. “It’s come to the point where we just hire them if they have a great personality, as opposed to looking for their experience.”
So, Medina said they have been hiring people with no experience and instead training from the ground up. But even after lowering hiring standards, the hotel remains short of workers in housekeeping, its restaurant, bar and more.
Like many other owners and managers in the hospitality business, Medina also says the worker shortage ultimately comes down to the enhanced unemployment benefits introduced during the public health crisis. “People are making $14 to $16 an hour on unemployment, and no one’s gonna want to come back,” he said. He said they have been doing their best to incentivize people, and have raised wages across the board by at least a dollar an hour.
Workers at the Hotel Don Fernando have been working around the clock, with managers pulling extra overtime to cover the demand as the summer tourist season in Taos gets into full swing. Currently, the hotel’s restaurant is closed Mondays and Tuesdays due the the employee shortage.
“It’s basically about half of our staff we used to have – with twice the occupancy,” he said.
The town of Red River has also experienced similar problems throughout most local industries, according to Red River Chamber of Commerce member David Wilcox. He said finding and retaining workers has been difficult for everyone, in part, because the labor force is now demanding higher wages.
Wilcox said staffing enough housekeepers throughout the town, which relies a robust lodging business, has been particularly tough. “The housekeeping staff that are motivated to do the job, they’re demanding more money as well,” he said.
Several businesses have had success in raising wages, but also noted those businesses “then have to turn around and cover that cost one way or the other, so that’s leading to higher prices to the guests who are visiting the Enchanted Circle area … We don’t know how it’s going to affect the guest demographic,” Wilcox said.
Kim Henkel, an adjunct professor at UNM-Taos and a former BLM ranger who lost her jobs when the pandemic hit, is still on unemployment. Even though she’d like to return to the workforce, she says she isn’t willing to take a position that only pays a few bucks above minimum wage.
“It feels like an insult when they say they’re gonna pay 12 bucks an hour, and I have years of experience,” she said.
So far, no jobs in town have presented themselves that would provide what she had prior to the pandemic.
Henkel said the recently added job search requirement for unemployment insurance (which requires participants to prove they are actively seeking employment, and was waived for the pandemic) has been “no problem” for her, as she’s been constantly seeking work in her field.
Another person, who chose to remain anonymous, said he used his time on unemployment to re-evaluate his priorities and refocus his career goals.
“For the past several years, I’ve been working intermittent, seasonal jobs – making just enough to make rent, food, gas and a bit left over for the savings account,” he said. “I have not been utilizing the bachelors of science degree that I earned.”
He said he has been completing the unemployment work search requirement by applying for jobs he may not be qualified for, but would give him the chance to make use of his education. “I plan on holding out for a good job in the field of my degree, which has been made possible by the extended unemployment,” he said.
But even he believes the extra $300 per week unemployment beneficiaries can receive from the federal government is excessive.
A second anonymous person said she had been on unemployment until the end of June, but has just recently decided to stop filing her claim now that the work search requirement has been added. “I was already working under the table,” she said. “And I didn’t want to go through the whole headache of finding two jobs a week, which is a lot in Taos because there’s only so many jobs.”
She admitted she was taking advantage of the enhanced benefits while she could. “I already feel like they’ve given me so much money for me doing nothing, so I’m set,” she said.
Julia Espinosa, another Taos resident who was on unemployment, said she felt she didn’t want to necessarily take advantage of the system for longer than necessary either, and picked up two jobs in September. But working two jobs for less money than she was making on unemployment was frustrating.
Devin Vigil, a Taos resident, was in a similar situation to Espinosa, and chose to go back to work before the extended unemployment benefits ran out. Vigil said he had set up an unemployment claim prior to the pandemic due to a leg injury. He knew his job wasn’t going to last, so he chose to take it sooner rather than later.
He stayed on it for about six or seven months, “then my job opened back up and they offered me my position back,” he said. “I accepted it and went back to work.” He added that if he did not get the offer he did, he “would have definitely stayed on unemployment longer.”
Vigil said he doesn’t spite anyone who remains unemployed, and acknowledged it can still be hard for people. “You’ve got to survive in this place; especially in Taos, New Mexico, it’s really hard,” he said. “The cost of living is outrageous. Rent is crazy. There’s no way anybody can survive, in my opinion, under $15 an hour – and nobody’s making that.”
He said as a coordinator for a nonprofit organization, he sees the other side of the employment problem as well. “It directly affects me to not be able to have the option to find reliable people to work for us. Sometimes I get frustrated because folks are using unemployment, but at the same time, some months prior I was that person.”
Michael McCormick, owner of The Michael McCormick Gallery, also sees both sides of the issue, given that he is both the owner of a gallery looking for reliable workers and also a beneficiary of the unemployment system. Unemployment “is the only thing that has helped us get through this pandemic,” he said.
As an employer, he admitted he has had trouble finding someone solid enough to tend to his gallery. “I would say 70 percent of the people who responded [to the job offer] never call back,” he said. “And I suspect that maybe they were using me to be one of the employers with whom they’re seeking work [in the unemployment system].”
McCormick acknowledged the hardship, but said he is still a major proponent of the unemployment system.
“Every penny that goes into an underemployed hand goes right back into society – goes right back into the budget,” he said. “So what if the government lets somebody slide through the system? What’s the big difference that those crumbs got a little bigger?”