Most Santa Fe businesses offering bonuses, higher pay to fill vacancies

·7 min read

May 30—Santa Maria El Mirador has seen four responses to job openings since April, compared to the usual 80 or 90 per month.

The organization, which offers support services for people with intellectual disabilities, has 52 openings.

Restaurant Martín can't find enough servers with the special skills necessary for fine dining.

"You can make up to $65,000 a year as a fine dining server, and nobody responded to our opening," co-owner Jennifer Rios said. "We just resorted to training people. We gave up looking for people who could hit the ground running."

The struggle to fill job openings remains a common problem for local employers who are trying to increase operations as the coronavirus pandemic wanes.

Many say they have received very few responses to job postings. Meanwhile, more than 5,000 Santa Fe residents and 80,000 people across New Mexico are still collecting unemployment benefits.

Hiring bonuses are in vogue for a range of businesses — with restaurants offering up to $500 and local hospitals offering as much as $11,000 for nurses.

Rios rejects that concept.

"I'm looking for people who want to work for me," she said. "What kind of team member are you if I have to wave $500 in your face?"

La Fonda on the Plaza in early May started offering $300 hiring bonuses to skilled hotel workers. About 18 new employees are on the program, general manager Rik Blyth said.

La Fonda also is giving its 190 existing employees a $500 bonus and a $250 referral bonus for bringing in a new worker who stays on the job at least three months, he said.

"It was obvious that something had to happen," Blyth said. "The owners put their money where their mouth was."

The common grumble from businesses is that the $300-a-week federal stimulus added to unemployment payments is encouraging people to stay at home. Numerous studies and surveys dispute that, however, including a survey this month of 1,000 unemployed workers by CNBC and Morning Consult.

The survey found 36 percent of unemployed workers cited low pay in the job market, while 35 percent had COVID-19 concerns and 31 percent needed to care for family.

Patsy Romero, CEO of Santa Maria El Mirador, said she wasn't certain if the extra unemployment benefit was keeping people from applying for jobs at her organization.

"We don't know if it's fear," she added. "We just know what the data is showing."

The 52 openings at Santa Maria El Mirador create a 25 percent vacancy rate. That's still better than the 30 percent statewide average, Romero said.

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, she raised entry wages 9.2 percent to $13.25 per hour, and all employees got a 3 percent bonus. With a $166,000 CARES Act grant, she also was able to temporarily raise lower-paid workers' wages to $15 per hour.

Medicaid reimbursements are not high enough to allow the organization to continue offering a $15-per-hour minimum, Romero said, though she would like to.

She said industry lobbyists are advocating for higher Medicaid payments so organizations like hers can raise their entry-level pay.

Health care shortage

The health care industry has a different challenge than other sectors of the economy that have led to the same result: many job openings.

Workforce Solutions statistics show 1,668 health care openings in Santa Fe County in March but only 141 medical workers collecting unemployment benefits.

The industry has had a nursing shortage for more than 20 years, which has continued through the pandemic.

The Christus St. Vincent Health System has about 270 open positions, with about 24 percent in nursing, said Sandra Dominguez, vice president of human resources.

"Nursing is always a challenge," Dominquez said. "There is a shortage of experienced nurses. We have always had [recruiting] tools in place, like a relocation bonus. We have up to an $8,000 sign-on bonus. ... We offer 'superhero' pay to people taking care of COVID patients."

Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which owns and operates the Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center, offered signing bonuses of up to $11,000 even before the pandemic for nurses and surgical technicians, said Janna Christopher, director of clinical recruitment.

Presbyterian has had about 40 clinical positions open in Santa Fe in recent months.

"I don't think recruiting has been impacted by COVID in general," Christopher said. "On a daily basis, recruiting in New Mexico is generally challenging. Santa Fe can be more challenging just because of housing."

Wages on the rise

Silas Peterson, owner of The Hire Firm in Santa Fe, which mostly places applicants in office jobs, said the tight labor market has put "inflationary pressure on salaries."

"Generally, I'm seeing employers are being pretty aggressive" with salary increases, he said. "They have positions they have to fill."

The most recent data from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions shows average weekly wages statewide rose during the pandemic, with a 13.3 percent increase — to $1,029 from $908 — from the third to fourth quarter of 2020.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports average hourly pay rates nationwide also have rose this year, increasing to $15.68 in April from $14.81 in January.

The nationwide average pay had increased steadily and gradually since 1970 but became erratic in March 2020. The rate first dropped to $14.63 from $14.91 and then bottomed out at $14.50 last summer. After rising and falling for the rest of 2020, it began to rise steeply in January.

"After years and decades of gradual increases, we saw the pandemic go off the rails for almost a year," said Reilly S. White, associate professor of finance at the University of New Mexico's Anderson School of Management. "We are seeing wages coming back in force."

Still, he said, wages "have a way to go to be where they should be in many sectors."

Not keeping pace

Hotels and restaurants have been left out of the salary boom. Workforce Solutions data shows only a $5 weekly wage increase from the third to fourth quarter of 2020.

But some in the industry believe it will have to catch up.

"I think inflationary measures have just begun," said Jeff Mahan, president of the Santa Fe Lodgers Association.

El Rey Court is "definitely considering" raising wages, the hotel's general manager Sarah Bolen said. But, she added, "People have to apply to get to the salary question. Nobody is even applying. We could probably use about eight more people."

Restaurants are the poster child of the worker shortage.

"Food preparation and serving related occupations" make up the largest share of the unemployed, according to Workforce Solutions — with restaurateurs most distressed about the thin pickings of willing employees.

A shortage of cooks and servers has forced restaurants to limit dining hours and menus.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said part of the problem is workers in the business shifted to other professions amid the pandemic, when restaurants nationwide were closed.

"You can't call up your ex-employees and say 'Come back to work' because they have done so many things in the meantime," she said. "The worker situation in Santa Fe is probably the worst in the state. People are poaching people from other restaurants. A restaurant told me they are paying a chef $18 an hour and he was poached for $23 or $25."

Wight looks at the glass as half full.

"The message to employees is right now is a great time to get in the workforce because you can negotiate a better wage for yourself than you will be able to in September," she said.

That's when the $300 weekly federal stimulus checks will come to an end for those receiving jobless benefits.