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Workforce Solutions seeks additional $11.4M

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The Workforce Solutions Department is asking lawmakers to boost its state funding by $11.4 million in the next budget year, more than quadrupling what it spent last year.

Most of the increase would go to the new computer system that handles unemployment taxes and claims. And with increasing numbers of business owners and jobless workers using the new system, the agency says it’s critical that the state step up.

The additional state dollars would make up for a drop in federal funds to the agency, which is largely federally supported.

About $8 million of the requested increase would be used for operation and upkeep of the $48 million federally financed computer system, which started up in January and has prompted complaints about being too complex and difficult to use.

Workforce Solutions Secretary Celina Bussey said Wednesday the unemployment insurance system is functioning smoothly – and “never missed a beat” during a recent deluge of applications from furloughed federal workers – but she acknowledged that applicants for jobless benefits can still wait for an hour to talk to someone at the agency on always-busy Mondays.

Bussey said there has been a significant decrease in federal funding for the agency’s programs, especially the administration of unemployment insurance. Her agency is “desperately asking” for state help to sustain the new computer system, so that federal funds can be used to prevent staffing decreases that could lead to even longer waits for customers, she said.

“We don’t want a $48 million investment to be a dinosaur in the blink of an eye,” Bussey said in an interview after an appearance before the Legislative Finance Committee.

An additional $11.4 million for the budget year beginning July 1, 2014, means the state’s general fund would provide nearly $16 million of the agency’s projected $85.8 million in spending.

Bussey said there had “absolutely” been improvement in the computer system, but the agency wants further refinements to make it more user-friendly.

Thus far in October, 66 percent of claims and nearly 76 percent of recipients’ weekly certifications have been done online – an indication, she said, that consumers are “really embracing that technology.”

Ninety-five percent of the state’s 45,000 employers are now filing quarterly tax and wage reports online, and 62 percent of employers are making payments online, according to the department.

However, callers are still averaging hourlong waits to talk to someone at the agency on Mondays and 15 or 20 minute waits on Thursdays and Fridays, she said.

Callers may be looking for information, seeking to make claims or checking their progress, or following up after having problems with the online system, for example.

Bussey said the wait times are about what they were a year ago and could be improved only by hiring more staff.

The secretary said she is “never going to be comfortable with somebody sitting on hold for an hour.”

The week the federal government shut down recently, the number of phone calls to Workforce Solutions jumped from the customary 28,000 to 45,000, Bussey said. Some 1,200 furloughed federal workers applied for unemployment benefits.

The claims are still being processed and it’s not known how many would be approved. But because those workers are entitled to retroactive pay from their federal employers, under state law they would have to repay Workforce Solutions whatever benefits they receive, so some have simply withdrawn their claims, Bussey said.

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