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Faced with an unprecedented spike in initial unemployment claims, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions is working to keep pace and urging applicants to go to the department’s website to file their claims online.
“We are doing everything we can to make the system more efficient so we can get people their benefits,” Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said Monday.
McCamley said the department has not experienced any delays in handling unemployment requests – despite the more than tenfold increase in the number of requests last week.
The spread of the new coronavirus and efforts to contain it have wreaked havoc on restaurants, hotels, shops and other businesses throughout New Mexico that have had to lay off employees due to a lack of business.
New Mexico residents filed nearly 11,000 initial unemployment claims last week, after the state government ordered bars and restaurants to convert to takeout and delivery only, among other restrictions. The number of unemployment claims just a week earlier was under 900. Last week’s total was larger than in any week during the Great Recession, McCamley said.
The number of layoffs is expected to increase further after the governor’s new announcement Monday ordering more business closures.
Due to the emergency closings, the state has altered its employment requirements to allow part-time employees to seek unemployment benefits. For example, an employee whose hours were cut due to the pandemic could seek unemployment benefits for those lost hours.
Those who qualify for unemployment typically begin receiving the benefit about a week after applying – part of a state-required waiting period.
To help keep up, the state workforce department has added 17 new call-center employees to handle unemployment requests by phone, according to department spokeswoman Stacy Johnston. The department has about 400 employees.
“We’ve definitely ramped up in all our areas,” Johnston said.
New employees will not be able to start fielding calls for a couple weeks, but McCamley said the department is providing a five-day crash course so employees from regional workforce offices can fill in those gaps in the meantime. Those workers’ familiarity with the system means they can start more quickly.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is considering a program that would provide forgivable loans to businesses hammered by the outbreak to help prevent them from having to lay off employees in the first place.
Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is encouraging the Senate to pass the program, which would help businesses make payroll and hang on to employees through the crisis.
“We learned in the 2008 recession that unless businesses get the help they need by way of resources that allow them to keep their employees, then layoffs occur,” Cole said. “That creates a bigger disaster for our community and for our state.”
With Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order Monday that all nonessential business in New Mexico close, the Workforce Solutions is ramping up for even more unemployment claims.
The vast majority of the state agency’s employees have begun working from home, although McCamley said the agency still has a skeleton crew manning its Albuquerque office and its call centers. The goal, McCamley said, is to convert as many employees as possible to working remotely.
In response to the high number of new claims, the state agency also posted a 14-minute video instructing individuals on how to create an online account to file a claim through the department’s website.
Johnston said the agency’s goal is to encourage as many people to file their claims online as possible.
“For those who are able to apply online, it’s just going to be a faster process for them,” Johnston said.