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New Mexico sees major jump in unemployment claims amid virus

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — More than 17,000 New Mexico residents have applied for unemployment benefits — more than 19 times the amount filed the previous week — amid the widespread economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus, officials said Thursday.

The surge in applications in one of the poorest states in the U.S. was a striking indication of the economic damage the COVID-19 outbreak is inflicting.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, New Mexico saw 17,187 people apply for unemployment benefits last week compared to 869 people the week before. Filings for unemployment aid generally reflect the pace of layoffs.

In its report Thursday, the Labor Department said 3.283 million people across the U.S. applied for unemployment benefits, up from 282,000 during the previous week. Many people who have lost jobs in recent weeks, though, have been unable to file for unemployment aid because state websites and phone systems have been overwhelmed by a crush of applicants and have frozen up.

The latest numbers come as oil and gas prices continue to fall — hurting one of New Mexico’s most robust industries — and as state officials imposed new restrictions on non-essential businesses to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Across the state with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the country, historic plazas sit empty, restaurants have closed, popular breweries have shuttered, and movie productions have halted. Tourism, one of the state’s strong points in recent years, also has taken a hit with hotels and spas shutting down.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” state Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said. “But these efforts are being made to save people’s lives.”

McCamley said state officials believe the 17,000 claims are the most significant spike the state has ever seen in one week. At the height of the 2008 recession, officials say unemployment claims plateaued at around 50,000, McCamley said.

To prepare for the expected rush of claims, McCamley said officials worked to revamp the website so it wouldn’t crash and staff could take all claims online. He said call center workers are being trained in a week for what usually is a five-week course.

Steven Maes, 50, said he might soon join those in the state who are filing for unemployment. The set designer was working on a major Netflix production in Albuquerque until production was halted and he was laid off amid the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Maes also operates the Rust is Gold Coffee & Garage shop in Albuquerque with his partner, Thaison Garcia. The two tried to keep business going by offering curbside service and delivery via motorcycle riders. But after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all non-essential business to close, Maes had to lay off four employees.

“At first, I was laid off,” Maes said. “Then, I had to do the laying off.”

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Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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