Worker shortage leads Santa Fe businesses to offer hefty bonuses

May 6—A cool $500 signing bonus.

That's what you can get if you're willing to work in the kitchen at Hervé Wine Bar in downtown Santa Fe.

Allied Universal is offering as much as a $900 hiring bonus for people who will work as security staff at Santa Fe Public Schools.

Bosque Brewing is offering free daily growlers now for its employees. The company recently added medical, dental and vision benefits — and now is discussing cash hiring bonuses.

"Yes, there is a worker shortage. It is real," said Silas Peterson, owner of The Hire Firm, a Santa Fe job placement company, typically for office jobs. "From our perspective, office workers, front desk, office managers, really it's front-line employees. These people are very hard to hire for right now."

Though the nation remains locked in COVID-19 mode, businesses — and employees — are finding the post-pandemic world looks far different from the one that existed in March 2020. For some, jobs remain scarce. For others, it's the workers who are at a premium.

State Department of Workforce Solutions statistics show that among most trades in Santa Fe, the number of people collecting unemployment benefits in Santa Fe County outnumbers the job openings found online by the the department. Accommodations and food services had the most unemployment insurance claimants in March at 1,342, yet restaurants had excruciating challenges finding people for the 196 job openings the agencies identified in Santa Fe.

Health care and social assistance have the opposite problem, with 2,399 job openings found by Workforce Solutions in March but only 464 unemployed workers in those fields on the unemployment rolls in March.

"I would say it is very unique in Santa Fe to find nurses," said Kat Seisman, a human resources manager at San Antonio, Texas-based Shadow Mountain Recovery Center, which has New Mexico locations in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos and Rio Rancho. "I can't find nurses to save my life in Santa Fe. In Texas, I can find nurses with no problem."

The common thought — challenged in some circles — is many people make more money through unemployment benefits than at jobs and thus have less incentive to go back to work. Other common reasons are concerns over the lingering coronavirus pandemic, especially bringing the virus home. Other possibilities: Some have found other jobs, are staying home with kids or moving away.

Ray Madrid was working temporary gigs in accounting through The Hire Firm until the pandemic hit last March. Since then, he worked briefly in September and October but not since then.

"The reason I stopped taking assignments is it's just plain too dangerous to be in the workforce and risk getting my family dead," Madrid said. "I am just heeding scientific fact that the coronavirus is deadly, especially more so for the elderly and people who are high risk. My brother has MS [multiple sclerosis] and my mother and father are in their 80s. We live in the same household. Under $15 is not worth putting them in the grave."

Minerva Paez reopened her Casa Chimayo at the end of March with just a husband-and-wife team running the kitchen and dining room.

"We have not really found anyone," Paez said. "Typically, I have two or three people back of house [kitchen] and a minimum of two or three or four front of house [dining room]. Some people are afraid of COVID. Some people have adapted their schedules with kids at home. Most of my people have found other jobs or moved away."

Since indoor dining in New Mexico was restored in February, operators say hiring bonuses — and higher salaries — are in play in restaurant-centric Santa Fe. Even medical benefits have entered the picture.

"We are doing a $500 hiring bonus right now for anybody on the culinary team in Santa Fe," said Wayne Moore, director of bistro operations at Lescombes Family Vineyards, which owns Hervé Wine Bar and other restaurants in Albuquerque and Las Cruces. "We may have to extend that [to servers]."

Before the pandemic, Hervé was open seven days a week. Now it's closed Monday and Tuesday.

"We're probably leaving 25 percent of our revenue on the table because we don't have enough staff to be open seven days," Moore said. "Saturday we could only serve nosh boards because we had no cooks. Restaurants that fired people are now hiring them back at a higher wage."

Before the pandemic, Hervé paid cooks $13 to $14 an hour, and now that is $18 to $20 per hour. Even with the $500 bonus, Moore said he has only been able to hire two cooks — and one has already left.

"I have two cooks at Hervé," Moore said. "I probably need seven in Santa Fe. I have eight cooks in Las Cruces. We should have 16."

Hervé and the other Lescombes properties this month added paid time off for all employees at all locations.

Moore recalled opening an Applebee's Grill + Bar in Alamogordo 18 years ago with 500 job applications. He plans to open a Lescombes restaurant in June in Alamogordo.

"Now we can't even get people to come in and apply," he said. "I've never seen it as it is now. There is no incentive for people to go back to work right now. That's the bottom line. I feel a $100 signing bonus wouldn't grab anybody's attention. The $500 probably is still not adding up to the money the government is handing out right now."

But some observers counter about the role unemployment benefits are playing, noting the availability of work throughout the economy is allowing some to be more choosy.

"The expanded benefit program didn't have as big of an effect on employment as many thought it would," said Reilly S. White, associate professor of finance at the University of New Mexico. "There's also the tendency of increasing wages for other jobs across the economy: Given the choice between working as a dishwasher at $12 per hour or working at Target for $15 per hour, many workers will choose the latter.

"There's usually a 'fair price' for all jobs," White continued, "and it's likely restaurants will have to offer higher wages to compete with other service-sector jobs, even if this gets passed on to the consumer."

Bernalillo-based Bosque Brewing opened in September at the Santa Fe Railyard, but food service isn't starting for a month or so. During the pandemic, Bosque started offering employees one free 32-ounce growler for each shift worked and a free 64-ounce growler once a month.

"The biggest thing we have done is we have increased wages and offered dental and vision for anyone and medical for employees that qualify," said Jotham Michnovicz, chief development officer at Bosque Brewing.

Bosque Brewing raised the starting wages for cooks from $13-$16 per hour to $17-$21.

"We just have very little interest in back of house," Michnovicz said. "Front of house is fine. We only had two applicants for back of house in Santa Fe. We don't have any of those [hiring bonuses] right now but we [had a meeting Tuesday] about hiring bonuses."

Allied Universal, which provides nationwide security services, has been offering $900 hiring bonuses in Santa Fe and $750 in Albuquerque since March 16 to people with state-issued security guard licenses to fill more than 100 jobs across the state, including at Santa Fe Public Schools. The company is also willing to pay the licensing fees for new guards who still need guard licenses.

"New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma are the slowest states [in the Western states] to issue licenses," said Brenda Studley, vice president of recruiting in Western states for Allied Universal. "It is taking many weeks to get licenses in New Mexico."

January and February saw increases nationwide in people applying for security job positions, but significant declines took hold in March and April, triggering the $900 bonuses in Santa Fe, Studley said.

"It's just what guards who are licensed are worth to us," Studley said about the signing bonus.

Shadow Mountain Recovery Center, which offers patient detox and residential treatment for substance and alcohol abuse, was down to a single nurse Tuesday. Normal is four, Seisman said.

Shadow Mountain's job listing says "pay is very generous," Seisman said, with a starting salary for registered nurses during COVID-19 increasing from $33 to $40 per hour and for licensed practical nurses from $26 to $33 per hour.

"Right now I wish we were offering a hiring bonus," she said.