May 12—Starting this week, New Mexicans receiving unemployment benefits will have to start documenting their job search to continue receiving benefits.
The change, which was announced Tuesday by the Department of Workforce Solutions, reinstates a pre-COVID federal rule requiring unemployment insurance claimants to document at least two job applications per week to continue receiving benefits.
Due to the pandemic, the work search requirement was temporarily waived and claimants were able to receive benefits without notifying the department of their job search.
"With the decline in COVID-19 spread and the successful rollout of the vaccine, we have the tools to move New Mexico forward," acting Secretary Ricky Serna wrote 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."
What do workers need to do?
Under the reinstated requirements, claimants must submit two work search activities per week when filing their claims, according to DWS spokeswoman Stacy Johnston.
Work search activities can include applying or interviewing for a job the claimant is reasonably qualified for or posting a resume on an online job board, Johnston said in an email. The reinstated requirements can also be fulfilled through attending workshops hosted by New Mexico Workforce Connection.
Workers must document the date of their contact, the type of work, employer information and the result of their contact each week.
Johnston said the requirement applies to every New Mexican receiving unemployment benefits, including those receiving benefits through federal programs, such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, that were established to provide additional aid during the pandemic. All claimants must seek work that offers at least 20 hours per week, and claimants who don't complete two work searches during a week will be deemed ineligible for benefits that week, Johnston said.
The policy change comes after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told business owners and leaders during an Economic Forum of Albuquerque webinar that the state was looking into policies that would incentivize workers to apply for jobs.
"We need to both incentivize employees to go back to work, and we're going to need some accountability aspects," the governor said during the April 28 event.
A Governor's Office spokeswoman said Tuesday that the work search requirement was among the policies the governor was referring to in those remarks. She did not say whether additional policy changes might be forthcoming.
Other states have also made recent changes to their unemployment benefits.
Governors of some states — including Montana, South Carolina and Iowa — have recently said they will no longer pay the $300 weekly enhanced federal jobless benefits due to concerns over labor shortages. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Tuesday that the assistance has discouraged people from returning to work, according to The Des Moines Register.
Lujan Grisham has not suggested she is considering following suit.
Ohio, Florida, Kentucky and Indiana also recently reinstated or announced plans to reinstate the work search requirements.
Businesses, workers react
For weeks, business leaders and owners have voiced numerous complaints surrounding unemployment requirements and benefits, claiming the waiver of the work search requirement combined with additional federal assistance acted as a disincentive for workers to apply for jobs.
Those receiving unemployment can currently receive a minimum of $390 per week between state and federal assistance, according to DWS.
"We're excited for our businesses, because hopefully this might encourage some more folks to apply and perhaps get a job that they'll be happy working at and it will be helpful to the businesses and the economy," said Ernie C'deBaca, Hispano Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.
C'deBaca said the return to the work search requirement will help fill many open jobs and that businesses are ready and willing to hire more employees.
George Gundrey, owner of Tomasita's in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Atrisco Cafe & Bar in Santa Fe, said he hopes the return of the work search requirement will encourage people to return to work, and ease what has been a very tight market for employers.
"I'm very hopeful it's going to loosen stuff up," Gundrey said.
Gundrey said he's hiring for about 25 positions across his three restaurant locations for cooks, dishwashers and front-of-house staffers. Despite raising wages by about $2 per hour since the beginning of the pandemic, Gundrey said, he's found it challenging to find employees.
Because of that, he said his existing employees are stuck working overtime and struggling to cover absences.
"It's increasing the stress level for the entire staff, management on down," Gundrey said.
Gundrey said he hopes the work search requirement will motivate claimants to get back in the habit of looking for work.
"If we got eight new applicants tomorrow, we would hire all eight of them," Gundrey said.
Workers' rights groups and labor and economic researchers say the lack of job applicants has been due to more than just higher unemployment benefits, with issues including low wages, irregular schedules and child care also influencing workers' decisions to remain on unemployment.
"People want to work. They are looking for work. They're declining jobs that don't protect their family's health or provide financial security and accepting jobs that do," Matthew Henderson, executive director of the OLÉ Education Fund, wrote in an email. "The DWS work search requirement doesn't change that."
But while some workers may agree with the reinstatement of the work search requirement, the latest change in policy has caused some confusion.
Rhiannon Chavez-Ross, the owner of an event company in Albuquerque, has been receiving unemployment benefits since last year because she was unable to operate her business due to public health orders.
Chavez-Ross said she thinks a majority of workers should return to work. However, she said that the announcement comes with little guidance from DWS and that it is unclear how this policy will affect business owners like herself or parents who are unable to work due to taking care of their children.
"The reason I started my own business is because I wanted to have the flexibility of making my own schedule for my family," she said. "... I don't know if I'm just supposed to throw all that away and go look for a job."