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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Top New Mexico officials said Friday that they are improving the state’s unemployment system, after a tsunami of jobless benefit claims related to the COVID-19 outbreak swamped the state and left thousands of state residents fuming.
More than 10% of the state’s labor force filed initial unemployment claims during a recent roughly monthlong period, as state-ordered closures of businesses not deemed to be essential have led to widespread employee layoffs and furloughs.
Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley apologized Friday for the trouble New Mexicans have faced accessing their unemployment benefits.
“We are very, very sorry for all of the frustration people have felt working through the unemployment system,” McCamley said.
He also said the agency is working to “put money in your pockets” and make it easier for people to stay home and safe.
The department has added 145 staffers – many from other state agencies – to help run its unemployment insurance call center, which has expanded its daily hours of operation. More employees are also helping to determine eligibility to get jobless benefits.
In addition, the log-in process for filing for unemployment benefits online is being improved, and text message alerts will soon be sent to jobless benefit seekers, McCamley said.
The number of New Mexicans receiving unemployment benefits has exploded from 9,600 in January to 79,806 since mid-March. There are also 123,816 active applications.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state is trying to make it as simple as possible to receive benefits, while also navigating federal requirements.
“It’s your money,” the governor said during a Friday news conference at the state Capitol that was broadcast online. “We have to ensure it’s getting to the folks it’s intended to.”
The surge in jobless benefit applications has caused the balance of the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund to drop to $397.5 million – down from $465 million in March.
Lujan Grisham said that more money going out to claimants than is going into the fund represents an “obvious math problem” but that said state officials will not allow the fund to be depleted. Federal assistance could be sought if necessary, McCamley said.
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham said a 15-member Economic Recovery Council she created this week held its first meeting Friday and discussed whether the state should allow hospitals to resume elective procedures, among other issues.
She said no decision has been made, however, and did not provide a timeline for when the policy shift might be enacted.
The governor said earlier this week that restrictions on some types of businesses may be eased in the coming weeks but that large public gatherings will likely remain off-limits for the foreseeable future.
‘This is harsh’
New Mexico has had a steady increase in COVID-19 cases since the first confirmed case was announced March 11.
However, state health officials have been increasingly optimistic in recent days that aggressive social distancing measures – including a stay-at-home order – were suppressing the disease’s spread and helping to avoid a worst-case scenario of hospitals statewide being overwhelmed.
Lujan Grisham said Friday that six more people had died due to complications from the virus, pushing the state’s total to 84 deaths.
All six whose deaths were announced Friday were men, ranging in age from their 60s to 90s, and five of the six had been residents of group living facilities.
Three deaths were individuals from San Juan County, one was from McKinley County, and two were from Bernalillo County.
“This is harsh,” Lujan Grisham said Friday. “There’s no governor, no family member, no individual anywhere in the world that wants to report on this.”
Altogether, Lujan Grisham said, testing confirmed 153 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 2,521.
Infection clusters on the Navajo Nation and on several pueblos have emerged as trouble spots for the state, and Native Americans make up 44% of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases – up from 37% as of last week. Native Americans make up only about 11% of the state’s population.
Meanwhile, the number of New Mexico patients hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms has increased to 152, with 38 on ventilators to help them breathe.
As for recoveries, state health officials said 614 people are classified as having recovered from the illness – or 24.4% of all state cases.
Lujan Grisham had strong words Friday for Grants Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks, who recently said he will encourage businesses to reopen in defiance of state orders.
She compared reopening too quickly to creating a section of a public pool for people to urinate in.
“This infection is here, it’s dangerous and deadly, and it’s spreading,” Lujan Grisham said. “This notion that you don’t have to comply is wrong.”
The spike in infections in the northwestern part of the state, Lujan Grisham said, is evidence of how contagious the virus is, even in communities far from larger metropolitan areas.
It is simply too soon, she said, to reopen most nonessential businesses.
“I need folks not to jump the gun,” Lujan Grisham said.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the state is in position to at least prepare to reopen only because New Mexicans have done such a good job staying home and slowing the spread of the disease.
Social distancing, he said, must be maintained for now to ensure that the number of confirmed cases falls to a level that will allow the state to eventually ease its business restrictions.
With the state’s economy largely hobbled due to the coronavirus-related restrictions, New Mexico’s official unemployment rate rose from its lowest point since the Great Recession to its highest point in several years in one month.
And there are plenty of reasons to believe the worst may be yet to come as economic data from the coronavirus crisis continues to trickle in.
“It is clear that we have real issues that must be addressed,” Lujan Grisham said Friday, while describing the state’s economic problems as an “untenable” situation.
A monthly Department of Workforce Solutions labor market review released Friday shows that nearly 55% of New Mexicans claiming unemployment insurance are women, a significant reversal from the beginning of March, when just 40% of claimants were women. The report attributes the shift to job losses in the accommodation and food service industry, which skews female in New Mexico.
Through April 11, 24.7% of claimants worked in the accommodation and food service industry, as restaurants and bars were forced to shift to takeout and delivery or close completely to prevent the spread of the virus.
The report also notes that more New Mexicans work in accommodation and food service than the national average.
The spike in jobless claims has also disproportionately affected younger workers.
Just over half the initial claims came from workers 35 and younger, according to the report. Claims among workers younger than 25 increased a staggering 1,249% from March 7 to April 11, while claims from those between the ages of 25 and 34 increased by 632%.
Across the state, the unemployment rate was lowest in Los Alamos and Eddy counties, each of which posted a rate of 3.7%, and highest in Luna County, with a rate of 20.1%, according to the report.
The rate in metro Albuquerque was 5.3%.
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