Businesses adapting to bring workers back deserve our thanks

When it comes to the ongoing labor shortage in America, there are two basic problems preventing the economy from fully reopening, as some people expected it would, like the flip of a switch: One, a $300 addition to federal unemployment benefits – now extended through September under the Biden Administration – is disincentivizing some people from returning to work, and two, workers in low-paying, often thankless jobs are holding out for long-awaited changes to some of the toughest industries out there.

Thankfully, those changes are beginning to happen at some businesses in Taos.

If you happened to go out to a local eatery for a meal this past Fourth of July weekend, then you might have seen the problem firsthand: The customer-to-worker ratio is out of balance. Long lines spill out the front doors of restaurants, even on weekdays. “Help wanted” and “now hiring” signs hang in windows. Front-of-house workers often consist of a manager (or owner, as the case may be), plus one (maybe two) servers. Many area restaurants that would normally have done gangbusters business on a holiday weekend struggled to meet the demand. At some of the most popular restaurants in town, bar seating is still off limits and certain tables are unavailable.

The minimum wage for restaurant workers in New Mexico sits between $2.55 and $2.88 an hour. In the restaurant industry, tipped positions often serve as a stepping stone, a first job listed on a resume or taken to earn money on the side. Yet, service industry workers must be able to earn enough money to live on. Especially in a town like Taos, which relies on its tourist seasons to fuel its economy, the feast-or-famine nature of hospitality industry restaurant pay is untenable.

No doubt, many people have remained on unemployment because of the extra dollars available during the pandemic, but many have also moved on to other fields. Others still are waiting for some sectors of the service industry to pay a liveable wage, at minimum, to coax them into coming back. Across the country, restaurants are experimenting with raising hourly pay and eliminating the practice of tipping. Some businesses here in Taos are already doing the same, and they deserve our thanks for making the change. Of course, there’s a catch: better pay for their workers usually means higher menu prices for customers, and it remains to be seen if they will be willing to pay them.

Running a business in a small town is tough. Any local proprietor would say so. But so is working for minimum wage. If the pandemic is helping to achieve a better balance between the need to keep a business’s lights on and paying workers a high enough wage to keep a roof over their heads, then that’s a win for everyone.

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