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Swamped system stymies jobless

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Frustration. Anger. Desperation.

That’s what many New Mexicans are experiencing as they attempt to navigate the state’s overloaded Workforce Solutions online and telephone unemployment system – a system that was never designed to handle the surge in unemployment claims the state has experienced in the last month.

Tens of thousands of people who have been laid off or furloughed because of the COVID-19 pandemic have run into technical hurdles applying online. Those trying to call Workforce Solutions often get a busy signal or an automated message saying they should call back later. When they do get through to an automated message saying an agent will be with them, they often face long waits or dropped calls.

“We will take responsibility for state systems being behind the ball in responding to this pandemic,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday. “We are fixing these systems and getting assistance out to New Mexicans as expeditiously as we can.”

The sheer number of applicants has overwhelmed the system, acknowledged Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley.

“In a normal week we have 600 to 800 claims,” he said in an interview last week. That number skyrocketed to nearly 10,000 the last week in March and now sits at more than six times that number.

The more complicated a person’s recent employment history, the more difficult the system is to deal with.

“I have six pending issues (with one claim) that need to be resolved that have been that way from day one,” said Robert Nuanes. “I don’t know what these issues are because when I call, I cannot get through to speak to someone.”

“None of us can get through to the unemployment office to file a claim,” said George Welland. “New Mexicans can’t get claims filed because the state’s computers crash or their phone lines are busy.”

Nuanes and Welland are among dozens of New Mexicans who answered an invitation by the Journal to share their experiences of trying to obtain unemployment compensation. The Journal issued the invite because of the unprecedented number of layoffs and furloughs due to all but essential businesses being ordered to close in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Adding to the influx is the government’s expansion of the program – allowing part-time employees and independent contractors to qualify, as well as furloughed employees or those whose hours were reduced.

While a few people who responded said they managed to handle the online system with no problems, far more described frustrating experiences.

One woman said she called 300 times in one day without getting through to anyone.

A man who successfully completed the application and was certified for benefits still described the online application process as “cumbersome” and not user friendly.

Another woman, from Santa Fe, managed to get through to the call center after repeated calls, then waited an hour and a half on hold.

Tens of thousands of claims

The numbers are mind-boggling.

Compared to 600 to 800 claims a week in February, there were 9,600 people in the state’s unemployment system during the first week of March, either receiving weekly payments or in the certification process to obtain unemployment benefits. There are now more than 79,049 workers in the system or receiving unemployment benefits.

“At the height of the Great Recession (2008 to 2010), we had 50,000 to 60,000 people in the system,” McCamley said. “But that occurred over a two-year period. This is three to four weeks.”

As for daily call volume: on Monday, March 30, the Workforce Solutions call center received 685,000 calls in one day. By the following Friday, the number dropped to 100,000. And the next Monday the number of calls jumped to 480,000.

“The system was not designed to handle the number of people in that short period of time,” McCamley said.

New Mexico Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at a COVID-19 news conference on March 13.

In other states like Kentucky, the entire system crashed. In Florida, the state is moving to paper applications because the online system is so outdated.

In New Mexico, despite the overload, claims are being distributed quickly once they have been certified. For those who choose direct deposit into their bank account, the money usually appears within 48 to 72 hours. If they choose to have the department set up a bank account for the money through Wells Fargo, it could take longer to receive the debit card and activate the account.

But getting certified is where it gets tricky – and it is easier for some than others.

Ready to panic

“I did not anticipate such a straight-forward process and above all such a rapid response,” wrote Al Papillon, who worked at Kohl’s until the business shut down. Papillon’s claim was fairly simple. He had been working for a retail store at Coronado Center that shut down on the governor’s order closing nonessential businesses.

But others have found the process far more frustrating.

Michelle Smith worked for the same company for 13½ years before changing jobs recently and going to work at a dental office. At first, her hours were reduced, and then the office closed.

When she tried to file a claim, she ran into trouble putting in her work history. The firm she worked for in the past had switched to a third-party payroll company. She didn’t recognize the payroll company’s name when it appeared on her claim and reported she never worked for the company.

That’s when she started getting notifications from Workforce Solutions that she couldn’t open or answer on the claim application. She began calling, and calling, the department without success.

In an interview with the Journal, she said she had a certain level of “panic.” She said she called 300 times in one day trying to get help.

“There are bills and rent to pay,” said Smith, who was still trying to get her issues resolved late last week.

Steps being taken

Adding to the frustration is the fact that the Workforce Solutions offices are closed to protect both state workers and applicants from spreading or catching the virus. That means the only way anyone can ask questions is by phone.

Applicants are encouraged to apply online, but there is no online chat system. People also reported problems opening up digital documents sent to them by the department.

McCamley said 50 regional employees have been added to the 80 who were handling telephone calls. The department has also brought in workers from eight other state agencies to provide telephone help.

“We had to retrain them and make sure they were able to work from home,” he said.

There are now more than 240 state employees handling telephone calls.

The department also had to make sure employees had enough bandwidth at their homes to handle the department’s computerized call system.

And the department expanded the hours people can call, so now phone lines are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

McCamley said he is trying to recruit additional state employees who might not be as busy because of the pandemic.

The department has also added employees to the mail room because faxes and incoming mail have increased substantially.

But since businesses started shutting down in compliance with Lujan Grisham’s orders, more than $45 million has been paid out.

“We are getting money into people’s pockets,” McCamley said.

Reduced to tears

The claim process drove Tia Terchila to tears.

Terchila lost her job with a Santa Fe catering company when nonessential businesses were closed.

She went online to file a claim and ran into an immediate problem – the system asked for information about an unemployment claim she had filed 20 years ago. She needed a password to log in to that account.

“It was so long ago, I forgot I did it at all,” Terchila said. “I didn’t remember any of the information.”

She called Workforce Solutions, managed to get through to the department call center and was on hold for an hour and a half. When her call was finally answered, it took an hour to get her claim straightened out. But when she was being transferred to a technician to help her “reset” her account, the call was dropped.

“I started crying,” she said.

It took another two days and more tears to get through on the phone to a customer service representative who could help. But the claims representative failed to tell her she needed to wait 24 hours before logging back on to her account. So when she attempted to log on she couldn’t.

As she once again began the marathon of trying to reach someone at Workforce Solutions, she attempted to log on one more time. Suddenly she was on the system and everything was cleared up.

“Talk about a nonfriendly application,” she said.

Preventing fraud

The state’s unemployment system must meet federal guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Most of those guidelines deal with workers who receive a W-2 tax statement each year from their employer stating their total wages, Social Security and federal and state tax withholding.

It requires applicants to name each employer they have had for the last 18 months, their reason for leaving a job and other information.

There are answers that raise red flags, like quitting a job, that require fairly detailed explanations that may have nothing to do with being laid off or furloughed because of the coronavirus.

There are other checks in the system, all designed to detect potential fraud.

“One of the main requirements for states is to weed out unemployment insurance fraud,” McCamley said. “The federal government puts a heavy emphasis on stopping fraud.”

‘We’ll let you know’

Kelli Sheldon owns a child care center in Paradise Hills.

On March 25, she told her employees she had to cut their hours and told them to apply for “loss of hours” at Workforce Solutions. Then Sheldon had to close the center following Lujan Grisham’s closure orders.

That meant her employees were having to go back into the Workforce Solutions system. It also meant more work for her.

“I got emails as the employer and responded,” she said. “A few had one issue after another.”

As a small-business owner, Sheldon set up an S corporation. The corporation pays her salary with all the normal withholding taxes as well as those of her hourly employees.

Sheldon filed for unemployment. Her application is on “hold” at the Department of Workforce Solutions.

“They tell you, ‘you are eligible,’ but then they put your account on hold because you’re ineligible,” Sheldon said.

She said she has been unable to talk to anyone at the department.

“They say we’ll let you know,” Sheldon said.

Agency to public: Be nice

The state raises the money needed to provide unemployment benefits through payroll taxes on employers. The money is put into a trust fund to handle unemployment claims filed by workers.

At the start of the coronavirus business closures, there was $465 million in the state’s unemployment trust fund, administered by the State Investment Council. Last week that was at $420 million as money started to flow out to people who have been laid off.

McCamley asked that the public be considerate when they talk to department employees.

“Everyone is working as hard as they can under difficult circumstances,” he said. “I know people are frustrated, but there’s no reason to get abusive to our employees.”

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