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New state benefit claims crash system

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A state program meant to provide some self-employed and gig workers a small financial boost during the coronavirus crisis has left many others angry and demoralized.

With only enough funding to help a fraction of the workers who might qualify, the Self-Employed Stimulus Payment program was quickly depleted this week – but not until after technical problems thwarted the first-come, first-served application process.

Many who unsuccessfully vied for the $750 state grants complained about the setup on social media. Critics called the system unfair and disgraceful. Some likened it to the “Hunger Games.”

“By the time the webpage even loaded the program was closed. This was the equivalent of trying to score concert tickets, but with people’s lives on the line,” Twitter user @NMBlueMenace wrote. “I feel embarrassed and defeated.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham addressed the situation in a news conference Thursday afternoon, applauding the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions for rolling out a new program to benefit workers but acknowledging its shortcomings.

“We shouldn’t be offering some programs where some folks get in early enough and some folks are left behind,” she said. “We are all in this together.”

Workforce Solutions had announced at 2 p.m. Wednesday that it would make one-time, $750 stimulus payments to help support self-employed citizens during the coronavirus pandemic. The department immediately opened applications but noted that available funding would only cover the first 2,000 qualified applicants.

Officials estimate there are about 62,000 self-employed and independent contract workers across the state.

The ensuing frenzy overwhelmed the agency’s website, and less than five hours later, the department had temporarily suspended the application process with fewer than 1,000 applications successfully completed.

Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said that state employees worked until 4 a.m. Thursday trying to fix the bugs in order to resume the process.

The department reopened applications Thursday afternoon.

Within minutes, would-be recipients reported on social media they were receiving messages that funding was exhausted and the program was closed.

Anthony Michaels-Moore, a Santa Fe-based opera singer who’s had multiple international jobs canceled due to COVID-19, struck out in attempts to apply both Wednesday and Thursday. He said he and his wife spent 90 minutes Wednesday trying to complete an application, uploading documents in various file formats and even trying different web browsers to no avail.

When they resumed their efforts Thursday afternoon, they were met with error messages.

“It’s extremely frustrating and annoying,” Michaels-Moore told the Journal in a text message. “The timeframe was limited and the site was unable to cope.”

A Workforce Solutions spokeswoman did not respond to questions late Thursday, but McCamley had told the Journal earlier in the day that his department is trying every possible approach to help New Mexicans during the pandemic. He said his department identified an extra $1.5 million “sitting in an account” that could be used to help people like artists, musicians, massage therapists and Uber drivers who are struggling during the coronavirus-related economic shutdown. While he knew there were not enough $750 grants to aid all those who could use them, he said his department wants to extend as much assistance as it can muster.

“We’re doing everything we can to get as much money out as we can,” McCamley said. “There’s such high need out there that there’s not a way to do it that’s going to make everybody happy.”

While many have complained about the process, he said his department decided the fairest and most efficient way to distribute it would be through an immediate, first-come, first-served online application process.

There was no channel for applying via telephone.

“It’s not perfect; this whole situation is very hard, but we’re all doing the best we can to get as many tools out to folks as possible,” McCamley said.

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