Lujan Grisham announces plan to improve Workforce Solutions

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Jun. 11—SANTA FE — In an attempt to stabilize a beleaguered New Mexico state government agency, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday announced overhauls aimed at helping the Department of Workforce Solutions better handle a barrage of pandemic-related unemployment benefit claims.

The changes include a partnership with Attorney General Hector Balderas' office to crack down on rampant fraudulent jobless claims estimated to be as high as $133 million over the last year, as well as hiring an additional 110 employees to staff an unemployment operations center that has struggled to keep up with a spike in phone calls from those seeking benefits.

"New Mexicans expect and deserve a state government that can deliver for them no matter the circumstances," Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "Too many agencies for too many years — even decades — were underfunded, hollowed out from the inside, unprepared for emergencies."

New Mexico's unemployment fund was largely depleted last year by the explosion of jobless claims, prompting the state to borrow $278 million from the federal government to continue paying benefits to unemployed workers.

In all, the state has paid out nearly $4 billion in jobless benefits during the pandemic — a figure that includes funds made available under federal stimulus plans.

But frustration with the department's ability to handle and process unemployment claims has persisted, and former agency secretary Bill McCamley left the job in April out of concern for his safety following a flood of threats targeting him and others in the department.

In addition, a recent legislative report found the Department of Workforce Solutions might have overpaid unemployment benefits by $250 million during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a mix of fraud and human error.

The report also cited outside audits that found jobless benefit determination errors, likely caused by low staffing levels and training issues, and incorrect interpretation of both federal guidance and a state law aimed at holding employers harmless from layoffs that occurred during the pandemic.

New Mexico's unemployment rate has been among the nation's highest in recent months — it was at 8.3% as of April — and the state recently reimposed job search requirements for those receiving jobless benefits that had been suspended at the onset of the pandemic.

There were slightly more than 90,000 state residents receiving jobless benefits as of April, down from nearly 120,000 claiming unemployment benefits at the start of January, according to DWS data.

The overhauls Lujan Grisham announced Friday during a news conference at the Governor's Office include steps intended to ensure the Department of Workforce Solutions can answer phone calls from 100% of unemployed New Mexicans.

The agency has fallen short of that goal in recent months, as it only answered 66,096 of the 1,505,973 calls it received in March — or 4.4% of them — according to DWS Acting Secretary Ricky Serna.

However, Serna said that of the total calls for March there were 169,358 unique phone numbers that called the center, meaning the department connected with about 40% of the people who attempted to reach it.

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham also announced state Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who runs an Albuquerque-based call center, has agreed to review the agency's call center — in his personal capacity and on a volunteer basis — and recommend possible policy changes.

"We have added staff, and we will add and train more," the Democratic governor said. "But I want our approach to be strategic — I want us to ask why these systems didn't always work the way they needed to in an emergency and get to the bottom of how they're going to work better."

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