Jun. 11—While the deluge of calls from unemployment claimants asking about benefits shows no sign of stopping, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions has tweaked its approach to better respond to the ongoing issue.
Acting DWS Secretary Ricky Serna spoke to the Journal last week for the first time since assuming the position in April following the resignation of Bill McCamley, answering questions about the department's performance.
Serna said the state agency, which has been able to answer just a small fraction of calls from claimants since the COVID-19 pandemic began, has embarked on a new strategy in the past month and a half.
He said the department has developed a system allowing it to link phone numbers from callers to claims in order to help identify issues even if the caller can't get through. This allows the department to then go in and resolve complex problems on the back end, even if they don't connect with every caller, Serna said.
"Big picture, if you called in and we weren't able to speak with you, we can tie your phone number to a claim, and then tie your claim to an issue," he said.
The department's challenges date back to last spring, when unemployment began to spike in New Mexico amid business restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Within weeks, DWS faced a sharp uptick in calls from a record number of unemployed New Mexicans. The sheer volume of calls overwhelmed the agency's resources, forcing the department to bring in staff from other agencies and work with outside contractors to answer calls.
Over the past 15 months, dozens of New Mexicans have spoken to the Journal about their frustrations getting through to the call center.
Some reported calling the call center more than 100 times a day to get a claim established or a question resolved, with no option to leave a voicemail or receive a callback number.
The frustrations across the state mounted to the point that McCamley, who had served as DWS secretary since 2019, abruptly stepped down in mid-April. He later said his resignation was prompted by a flood of threats targeting him and others in the agency and a fire bomb that appeared to target a department vehicle in a parking garage in Las Cruces.
Data published by Searchlight New Mexico in mid-March showed that DWS had received 18 million calls, with representatives able to answer only about 1.2 million, or 6.6%, of them.
The numbers were even worse this March, which marked the anniversary of the first COVID-19 cases in New Mexico. Serna said the department received 1,505,973 calls in March and answered 66,096, or 4.4%, of them. The department did not provide totals for April.
However, Serna said his department tracks the number of unique phone numbers that call the center — 169,358 in March — to form the basis for how many people need assistance. Using that metric, he said the department reached about 40% of the people who called in March.
"We're working toward being able to answer every single call," Serna said. "There's no question that that's the goal here."
The agency's new strategy is designed to help the people who haven't been able to get through on the phone. Once the agency has identified issues with the system or with individual claims, it has allocated employees to resolve key issues.
"What we're trying to do for the other 60% that don't get in is say, 'We know we didn't talk to you, but we also know who you are. ... We know the issue on your claim and now we're going to work on that,' " Serna said.
Ideally, this approach will result in fewer New Mexicans needing to call in. Serna said the department received 406,980 calls the week of May 10, compared to about 139,000 calls two weeks later.
He attributed the decline to the agency's strategy, along with the restoration of the work search requirement.
Asked about why the department couldn't add a callback system for claimants, Serna said the department doesn't have the manpower to put employees on callbacks without taking away from its call-taking or back-end staff.
DWS employed 103 people working in unemployment operations at the beginning of the pandemic. By May, that number had grown to 270, including contractors. Serna added that the department is in the process of hiring around 100 more employees. Still, he said it takes around five weeks to get new employees ready to take calls without support from more senior staffers.
"Until we get to 100% of calls, our work is not done," Serna said.
DWS has been under fire in recent weeks after the Legislative Finance Committee released a report stating that the department may have overpaid unemployment benefits by $250 million, with more than half of that total coming from fraudulent claims.
DWS has disputed that total, saying the total number of overpayments, which the department runs a query to determine, is closer to $113 million. LFC has said it stands by the $250 million overpayment figure in its report.
Serna did not provide an explanation for the discrepancy beyond saying that DWS drew a distinction between overpayments, which stem largely from confusion related to the rollout of the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and intentional fraud, which has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
"That (PUA) program really created opportunities for fraudsters to come into the door and take advantage," Serna said.