By some important measures, the state Department of Workforce Solutions was headed in the right direction under the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.
The department reported in November that it had dramatically reduced the amount of improper unemployment insurance payments, from $64.4 million in fiscal year 2011 to $28.4 million in fiscal year 2012.
Over the same period, the average wait time for callers to the department’s unemployment insurance claims center dropped from 50 minutes to 15 minutes.
Then, the wheels came off in what you might call a perfect storm.
A few days after the start of the new year, Workforce Solutions brought online a new computer system, at a cost of $45 million, for the unemployed to use in seeking benefits and employers to use in paying unemployment insurance taxes.
Also, in the first few days of January, Congress and President Barack Obama, as part of their deal to avoid a so-called fiscal cliff, agreed to extend federal jobless benefits for the long-time unemployed. To recertify for those benefits, about 7,000 jobless New Mexicans had to contact Workforce Solutions by telephone.
Making matters even worse was a banking error that delayed insurance payments.
Over just two days, the department was slammed with 182,000 calls, forcing callers to wait on hold for hours to reach customer service, if they got through at all.
The reaction of Martinez was in part to blame callers for not staying on hold long enough.
At a news conference Jan. 22, the governor said many callers, after being put on hold, were hanging up and calling again in hopes of getting faster service.
“I’m sure they’re frustrated, but they have to stay on the line to be helped so the next customer service person can help them,” she said.
Martinez did announce that Workforce Solutions had increased the number of people taking customer service calls from 45 to 100.
The department said the implementation of the new computer system had “gone smoother than we thought” but that the unemployed and employers needed help navigating the system.
Workforce Solutions said it had implemented new data and security standards that require the unemployed to provide more information and to go to its main website before they can access the new computer system to apply for benefits.
The department said a “data fix” was needed to free up nearly 7,000 weeks of benefits for more than 3,100 unemployed.
Last week, Workforce Solutions said the new computer system was operating smoothly but that high call volume continued to be an issue.
It also announced it was waiving penalties and interest for employers unable to file quarterly wage reports and tax payments by the Jan. 31 deadline because of delays in reaching customer service.
“We understand that many employers are still waiting to speak with a UI (unemployment insurance) customer service agent due to the extraordinarily high volume of calls we are receiving from people with questions about the federal extension of UI benefits and our transition to a modern UI tax and claims system,” said Workforce Solutions Secretary Celina Bussey.
Employers must activate accounts before they can access the new computer system.
With the new system, Workforce Solutions hopes to improve the timeliness and accuracy of benefit payments. The system also is a one-stop shop for businesses to pay unemployment insurance taxes and monitor claims.
Bussey, who has headed Workforce Solutions since Martinez took office in January 2011, is credited with leading something of a turnaround at the long-troubled department.
The question now is whether and how fast Workforce Solutions can recover from its recent troubles associated with implementation of the new computer system.
One powerful lawmaker, Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, continues to have faith in Bussey.
“I want to give her more time to right the ship,” Smith said.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal