ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Businesses are seeing a record number of job openings — but also a record number of people choosing to leave the workforce altogether. Economics experts say the number of people quitting their jobs recently in New Mexico is higher than the rest of the country, and some businesses are wondering what to do next.

For nearly two years, Garcia’s Kitchen locations around Albuquerque have struggled to get back to a full staff. They hoped the end to COVID-related federal unemployment programs would be the answer they needed.

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“We expected after September 3rd, maybe to get a rush of employees, which we didn’t really get,” said Dan Garcia, owner of Garcia’s Kitchen. “I don’t know why. Maybe some are on unemployment or COVID or whatever their reasons are.”

It’s a trend reported across the country, not just here in New Mexico. It’s a conundrum of sorts as two areas that go hand-in-hand are seeing record highs.

“Job openings reached record numbers this late summer into fall, the highest we’ve ever seen,” said Reilly White, an associate professor of finance at the University of New Mexico‘s Anderson School. “But also what’s reached the highest levels have been quit rates, so the number of people who are quitting their jobs at the same time.”

White says at the beginning of the pandemic, about 16 million people were either laid off or left their jobs. While most have returned to employment since then, about a quarter of those people, or four million, have left the workforce altogether.

“A proportion were early retirements. Many saw rising equity values, rising value in their homes, they saw an opportunity to maybe retire a little bit early, or given the situations and the stresses at work, that was an opportune moment,” said White. “Need of child care and elder care opportunities, those are really big issues, particularly, among New Mexicans, who reported a particularly high percentage of people who left the workforce for that reason.”

According to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, there are more than 125,000 job openings right now in the state. While they’re still calculating the number of those not working, in the past year, only 57% of New Mexico’s population 16 and older were actively in the workforce, much below the national average. White says he doesn’t see this shortage resolving until well down the road.

“Here in New Mexico in October, our quit rate is slightly below the national average but the national average is still really, really high. About 2.8% of all people in the workforce quit their jobs in October,” said White. “We have labor shortages driven by supply chain issues and other things. This will take a year or two, six months to two years to basically sort its way through the system.”

Back at Garcia’s Kitchen, hours are still greatly impacted as their restaurants now close in the afternoon without workers to handle late evenings. Still, as some former staff members continue to return, Garcia says they’ll keep pushing on.

“We’re hoping to keep getting there but when I’m not sure. It’s been a struggle but you can only work with what you have at the time,” said Garcia. “A lot who have been with us before have stayed with us so we’re not in a totally bad place but we’re not in the best place where we’d like to be.”

Workforce Solutions is also specifically looking into those on unemployment insurance to find out if they’re back in the workforce or still on unemployment or in a different circumstance. Those findings will be made public in early February.