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Muhamed Abdelhack covers business and economy for The Paper. He is a communications and journalism graduate of UNM.

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It’s hard to drive through busy New Mexico streets and not see a “Help Wanted” sign hanging in windows. Restaurants, hospitality, retail and construction are just some of the many businesses across New Mexico that are in desperate need of employees. As COVID restrictions continue to lift, businesses are opening their doors again but are finding that, without the necessary staff in place, they are unable to support their traditional volume of customers. With all of these business hiring, where have all of the employees gone?

According to a recent survey by the National Federation for Independent Business, 42 percent of small businesses reported positions that they are not able to fill right now. Additionally, in another report provided by the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS), March of 2021 saw 70,052 total unemployment in the state, or 8.3 percent, compared to March of 2020 when it was just 52,130, or 5.4 percent.

In an attempt to encourage more active employment searches, the NMDWS has recently announced that it would immediately reinstate its work search requirements (which had been waved since March 2020) for anyone seeking unemployment benefits. “With the decline in COVID-19 spread and the successful rollout of the vaccine, we have the tools to move New Mexico forward,” said NMDWS Acting Secretary Rick Serna in a statement. “As a result, more employers are now able to increase their reopening efforts, including bringing more staff back to work and hiring new positions.”

This means that anyone currently receiving unemployment benefits must show at least two active job searches per week through a weekly certification process which includes: date of contact, type of work, details about the employer, type of contacts and more.

Businesses like The Range Café and the shops at the ABQ Sunport have also stepped up their efforts to attract fresh employees by offering sign-on bonuses and employee referral incentives. But it’s not just local unemployment benefits and federal relief that are keeping various positions from being filled, according to Michael O’Donnell, acting director of The UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research. In an interview with Albuquerque Business First, O’Donnell said that raw dollar figures alone don’t account for the current hiring challenges. Behavioral factors can play a role as well. Specifically, the certainty of receiving a weekly check can seem more beneficial to a low-income wage earner than uncertain pay as a result of fluctuating shifts at an hourly or tip-based rate.

According to the NMDWS, the Work Benefit Amount (WBA) is dependent upon a person’s earnings from their previous employer. The minimum eligible WBA for 2021 is $90 per week with the maximum amount is $484. Assuming the median WBA amount of $287 added to the $300 per week provided by the Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act of 2020 and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and that is potentially $587 per week ($2,384 per month) that an unemployed person needing work assistance benefits can receive. Compare that to the new minimum wage rate in New Mexico of $10.50 per hour at 40 hours per week and that is $420 weekly or $1,680 per month.

A living wage, the amount needed to support themselves without support, in the Albuquerque metro area is $13.70 per hour or $548 per week with no children to support. That increases to $636 per week for each worker in a two parent household with one child, according to the MIT living wage estimate.

Perhaps the question that should be asked isn’t “Where are all the employees?” but rather “What would it take to give workers the living wage that they deserve?”

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