On a recent afternoon, Earlene Durand was handling the grill herself at her small Taos café. Some of her workers hadn't shown up, forcing her to take most of the kitchen responsibility.
It isn't a new problem for Durand and other business owners in Taos, who say they struggle to find and keep reliable employees. "It's the same, same - nobody wants to work," said Durand. "They work for two weeks to qualify for the benefits paid by New Mexico and then turn around and disappear. I'm up to 109 hires in 2 1/2 years."
Some businesses, especially restaurants and fast-food eateries, in Taos are constantly seeking reliable workers to fill their schedules and help their customers, yet that help is few and far between with some businesses operating on thin crews to keep the doors open and the customers happy. Problems that range from employees showing up late to just not showing up at all have plagued some businesses in the area.
"We hear that it's difficult to find qualified people who have a good work ethic," said Taos County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Susan Cady.
Many business owners in Taos have been reluctant to voice their concerns on the record to The Taos News due to damage it could do to them within the small community and because, as one owner puts it, "Taos is not ready for the truth." Whatever the reason for not speaking up, many have the same issues they voice to the chamber, social media and other outlets - they have a hard time finding reliable, punctual and hardworking employees. Off the record, managers say they've let employees go due to drug use, a general lack of work ethic and a complete lack of punctuality. Several types of industry are affected by this issue in Taos, including customer service, retail and trade work.
Several employers across town, like Durand of Earlene's Public House Café, are working to fill the vacant positions left by their employees, which often leave the facilities around Taos understaffed and the remaining employees overworked. Durand said she has often had to work several jobs at her restaurant due to a lack of staff.
Corporate chains and even other local establishments alike have experienced difficulties in keeping a full staff. According to Durand, employees will apply for the job, then leave after training or their first paycheck for a number of reasons, leaving her short-staffed for the time being. Short-staffing because of "no-call/no-show" employees is an increasing problem for many companies in Taos, which have to then run a skeleton crew, or the bare minimum of employees, to fill staffing holes.
Despite other business owners' reluctance to discuss their hiring woes, Durand acknowledges that the issue is not just unique to her restaurant or even to the Taos area. Drugs, attendance and even parole violations have affected Durand's employees' status at the restaurant and she said many others are dealing with the same issue.
"We're all in the same boat," she said between cooking meals.
Hiring employees in Taos can often be difficult, but Sean Walker, manager of Río Grande Ace Hardware, thinks the issue is a complex equation of several factors that make up the employment problem. While several factors contribute to the retention rate of employees, Walker believes the interview process is a massive step for employers that new employees might be overlooking. Interviewing often is one's chance to make a good first impression with potential bosses and, according to Walker, some of those who show up to the interview lack the appearance many employers are looking for. Walker has seen applicants come in street clothes or other attire when applying for a job at his establishment.
Walker and other employers in the area attribute drug use, difference in pay in different cities, seasonal employment and a lack of work ethic to be reasons new employees may be hard to find. However, Walker affirms that most of his employees who pass the hiring process tend to stick around for the long term.
"I would be willing to add staff now to train them and give them the Ace philosophy because it gives them experience for next year," he said. "We live in a depressed state and our wages are not New York. Our wages are not even Santa Fe."
Minimum wage in the town of Taos is $7.50 per hour, the same as the state minimum, but significantly lower than nearby areas, such as Santa Fe, which raised the minimum wage to $11.09 per hour as of March.
Durand said she hires servers at a higher wage than the minimum her restaurant needs to pay in attempts to keep them longer and if they show a willingness to do extra tasks needed around the restaurant. The minimum wage for servers, or tipped employees, in New Mexico is $2.13 per hour, plus tips.
"The workforce has changed a lot," said Restaurant Operations consultant Alex Kaulbach of U.S. Foods. "The younger mindset wants to have more than a transactional experience in their employment. They want to feel like they're contributing to something."
Kaulbach said there is a high employee turnover rate in the restaurant industry - more than 65 percent nationally after a year - and said the problem lies with both the employee and the employer. According to Kaulbach, employers have to build communication and make their business a place where employees want to be. When a worker leaves, they leave because they can get the same job somewhere else and are not attached to the business, he said. Kaulbach's solution is for employers to hire employees who want to be there and make an effort to discuss the importance of serving the customer, no matter the industry.
"It's not good enough to just go through the motions," Kaulbach said. "Sixty-eight percent of people said they wouldn't go back to a restaurant because of a bad service experience."
Joy Forehand, public information officer of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, said she didn't want to speak directly for the businesses, but offered assistance to employers and job seekers for the hiring process. The department works as a "mediator" between the business and those looking for work to bridge the gap for the two. The department offers information to job seekers on what types of employment might be best for them, as well as how to better their skills for certain jobs and tasks.
Information and training on how to get a job and what skills may be needed are often crucial for those either new to the job market or those seeking to re-enter after a long absence. For more information, the Taos office can be reached at (575) 758-4219.
"We shouldn't ignore that our educated young adults are leaving this community," Walker said.