July 23, 2021

Restaurant jobs abound. But many in NM want something better to come back to.

SANTA FE —  More than 71 percent of New Mexico residents have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Thousands of restaurant jobs are vacant statewide, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has even offered up to a $1,000 cash payment for workers to come back in July.

But according to state unemployment records and a lobbying group for the restaurant industry, restaurant jobs (and many others) still abound — so much so that many eateries have had to cut hours or even close for a day because they can’t find enough people to meet the demand of a public hungry for eating out after months of staying in.

“It’s every place. I’m gonna say 98 percent of restaurants don’t have complete staff,” said Carol Wight, executive director of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “And that’s not just Santa Fe. That’s across the state.”

Amid the labor shortage, unemployment benefits have become a political flashpoint as Republicans and business owners argue the extra cash has disincentivized working. But has it?

Twenty-six states with Republican governors cut the extra $300 weekly unemployment supplement, hoping workers would be forced back to work.

About a month later, that hasn’t made much of a difference. Only 10 percent of workers in those states said they were urgently looking for work at the end of June, according to Indeed.com’s Hiring Lab. Close to a month after that, job gains in those states were about on par with gains in states that did not slash federal unemployment benefits, Reuters reported this week.

Service industry workers who spoke to NM Political Report and data from the state and from job search giant Indeed.com suggest that many of those jobs often pay less than a living wage, offer few opportunities for professional advancement or hold little personal meaning for workers.

“Quite often, restaurant work is just shit work,” said Brian Crane, who worked for five years at a bakery in Santa Fe before being laid off in March 2020. Crane, who teaches improv comedy classes and used to teach writing as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico, has primarily earned his living working in the restaurant industry. His unemployment benefits ran out at the end of 2020, but he was eager to return to work anyway.

“You might make good money sometimes, but it can be really shitty work,” he said. “You’re dealing with a lot of people, and you’re being paid a very minimal wage. But I’d rather be out doing something than nothing — so it’s a hard balance.”

In May, food service operations advertised 2,359 New Mexico jobs online and 8,496 people in the industry were receiving unemployment benefits, according to a June 30 state report. Restaurant lobbyist Wight said the number is likely far higher, because many jobs aren’t advertised online. Wight, like many, blames boosted benefits for the many vacancies.

But the vast majority of food service jobs don’t pay a living wage, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The average food service job in New Mexico paid $10.88 an hour of 83,760 restaurant jobs available in 2019. The median wage was $9.80, according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce solutions.

In Santa Fe, where rent is costlier than in Albuquerque or rural areas of the state, a living wage is $15.51 an hour according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. For an adult with a child, the living wage is double: $30.27. 

Santa Fe’s minimum wage is $12.32 an hour. And that’s to say nothing of the stress of the job, the pace of the work, the lack of nights and weekends to spend with friends and family, few options for career advancement, palty sick leave and usually no health insurance.

In a nationwide June survey of 5,000 people between the ages of 18 and 64, many job seekers told Indeed.com that COVID-19 is still a major factor in not wanting to come back to work immediately. Responsibilities to care for family at home are another major reason cited. About 30 percent of the people surveyed said they’re waiting for vaccinations to increase before seeking jobs, and another 30 percent said they’re waiting for more job opportunities.

Emily Mayer, a former bartender in Santa Fe, is in the latter camp. She lost her job after returning to work in June and has since made the decision to retrain as a certified wine specialist. Mayer said she wants more time to spend with family and isn’t in a rush to take the first available job. Unemployment benefits offered her a chance to really reflect on what she wants to do next, Mayer said.

“I do feel that businesses that have a history of treating people well, offering benefits or higher wages or health insurance — those businesses are not having as difficult a time bringing employees back or hiring new employees,” she said. “I think businesses whose workplace cultures are too difficult are having the hardest time. That is the crux of the issue.”

Jen Stillions, who worked in the Santa Fe restaurant industry for years before moving back to Iowa in May, said Santa Fe is the toughest work environment she’s faced in a restaurant career that has spanned decades across three states. She often made $150 to $200 a night as a Santa Fe waitress. But it was hard work, and Stillions said she empathizes with people who don’t want to come back yet. She was on unemployment benefits for a year before returning to work.

“You have to work nights and weekends. You don’t get to see your friends or family. In Santa Fe, it’s very hard to take vacations in the summer because there’s so much going on. It’s kind of like that everywhere,” Stillions said. “I think a lot of people are just reevaluating their lives.”

Maria Espinoza, who asked to use a pseudonym, worked at a Domino’s Pizza chain for two years, making minimum wage in Albuquerque before she quit her job when the pandemic hit in March 2020. 

She survived on unemployment benefits for a time. Then she went back to work as a cashier at a business she wished to not disclose. Espinoza said she wanted to remain anonymous, fearing job loss or a harder job search.

Like many low-wage food service workers, the pay was bad. And employers didn’t seem to care much about workers’ safety, Espinoza said. They didn’t enforce mask rules strictly, and once she was reprimanded by a supervisor for asking a customer to wear a mask.

“They just don’t pay us enough,” she said. “If you only get paid minimum wage, you can’t really afford to take the day off, even if you have Covid.

“If employers are demanding for us to come back to work, they need to offer us a higher rate of pay and a safe working environment,” she continued. “And if you can’t provide those, what’s the point? Just stay home and stay safe. No job is worth anybody’s life. It’s not worth your lungs, it’s not worth your health.”