Lujan Grisham outlines reforms to state's beleaguered labor agency

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Jun. 11—In an effort to improve operations at the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, which has been the subject of stinging criticism over its handling of unemployment claims since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday announced an overhaul of the beleaguered state agency.

The reforms are designed to not only improve the agency's handling of unemployment claims but "its ability to function effectively and help New Mexicans find and retain gainful employment," according to a memo obtained from the Governor's Office.

The reforms target three overlapping areas, the memo states.

First, the state plans to hire an additional 110 workers to staff the Unemployment Insurance Operations Center, allowing the agency, which has been inundated with phone calls from claimants, to handle more calls and enhance its performance.

"With the supplemental staff, the agency estimates its Operation Center will have the capacity to handle about 7,000 unique calls each day," the memo states. "Over the past three weeks, the center received roughly 6,000 unique calls each day."

As of Wednesday, 47 new workers were already on the job and undergoing training. Another 60 or so will be hired and trained this week and next. The intent with hiring more workers is to ensure that all calls are answered every day.

"These new hires will bring the total staff at the Operations Center from 270 to 380 individuals, an almost 300 percent increase from the center's staffing level (103 workers) at the outset of the pandemic," the memo states.

The state also plans to bring in an outside expert "to comprehensively review call center operations and recommend strategic short- and long-term improvements to more effectively resolve claimants' needs," the memo states.

Second, the state will "aggressively" clamp down on fraud through a partnership with federal and state law enforcement, as well as other state agencies.

"The administration has established a multi-agency Fraud Specialist Team — incorporating fraud specialists from the Human Services Department, Taxation and Revenue Department and Department of Information Technology — to assist the Department of Workforce Solutions in enhancing fraud detection efforts, minimizing the impact on claimants who are entitled to benefits and improving the labor agency's referral processes with federal and state law enforcement," the memo states.

Finally, an independent consultant will "conduct an agency-wide forensic review, coordinate the creation and development of a management and operations overhaul of the department, and create and implement an action plan for addressing short- and long-term critical priorities," the memo states.

"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. It's our job to fix it — to get solutions now and to make sure everything we do has a long-term evaluatory impact. We will keep getting New Mexicans the unemployment assistance they are entitled to, and we will help New Mexicans who are able to work get back to work, and this department — this entire government — will always be accountable to New Mexicans."

This is a developing story. Stay tuned for updates.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.