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NEW MEXICO DEPARTMENT OF WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS

State unemployment claims since COVID-19 began will top $3 billion by month’s end

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By the end of January, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS) will have paid out more than $3 billion in unemployment benefits since last March, when public health orders closed businesses around the state in response to COVID-19. New Mexico’s total annual budget is about $7.2 billion.

NMDWS Sec. Bill McCamley said the department processed slightly more than 100,000 weekly unemployment claims in mid-January. That compares to a peak of more than 150,000 last June. The week before the statewide shutdown, March 9, 2020, NMDWS processed about 9,600 claims, he said.

New Mexico’s seasonally adjusted labor force was 926,261 last November, with an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, according to www.dws.state.nm.us. That compares to 8.1 percent unemployment in last October and 4.8 percent in November 2019. The national unemployment rate was 6.7 percent in  November 2020.

McCamley said NMDWS has more than doubled – to 170-plus – the number of staff processing unemployment claims over the phone, and staff from other state government departments also have helped out. McCamley has personally processed thousands of claims, and he said department staff with other duties, including those tasked with job creation, attorneys and staff who oversee department boards, are handling calls and constituent services.

“Since the middle of March, it’s been all unemployment all the time,” said McCamley, a former Las Cruces state legislator and Doña Ana County commissioner. “Everyone is helping, and they’ve been at it constantly for 10 months now.”

“I have only the highest amount of respect for these state workers,” he said. “They are dealing with people who are terrified, who don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, and they are treating everybody with dignity, respect and compassion. I could not be prouder to work with them. Everybody in our department has been superheroes.”

The secretary also praised NMDWS IT staff. “New Mexico has a very modernized computer system,” he said. “Our employment system is one of the best, most efficient in the country.” That has allowed the state to be among the first to implement federal unemployment programs created to deal with the pandemic, McCamley said.

But the volume and complexity of those programs has been a huge challenge, he said, along with a 10- to 15-fold increase in the number of people trying to navigate the system at any given time.

For example, McCamley said, when President Trump signed the CARES Act into law last March 27, it extended unemployment compensation to independent contractors. NMDWS received about 12,000 hits within five minutes of the program’s midnight start time in New Mexico, he said, and about 20,000 within two hours. Computer techs were on hand to make sure the system was able to meet the challenge, he said.

NMDWS and other state labor departments also must deal with a federal unemployment system that was created in 1935 and “doesn’t reflect our current economy,” McCamley said. Issues like out-of-state wages, multiple employers, self-employment and pension income take time for department staff to process before claims can be paid. Programs in place to prevent fraud also delay payments, he said.

And, if you quit your job by your own choice, you can only collect unemployment benefits if you can show good cause, McCamley said, meaning that you were dealing with an abusive employer, an unsafe workplace or work conditions that changed without your consent.

If the department rules you left your job without good cause, you can appeal the ruling to an administrative law judge. If you get an unfavorable ruling from the judge, that appeal goes to McCamley, who, as cabinet secretary, must make the final determination.

Sometimes, McCamley said, he and NMDWS staff deal with “very angry people” who threaten department staff and have even broken office windows and firebombed employees’ vehicles.

“The staff continues … to go to work every single day to help hundreds of thousands of their neighbors get the help they need to get through this thing, and that is heroic,” McCamley said.

To help the situation, McCamley’s advice is to wear a facemask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and get the vaccine as soon as possible. That will drive down virus cases, get people back to work and children back in school and help reduce the state’s unemployment.