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Refusal to return to job can cost benefits

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Myra Ghattas stands outside Sixty-Six Acres, the only one of her three Albuquerque restaurants currently open. Ghattas is faced with the difficult task of asking her employees to come back to work knowing many will receive less pay on the job than on temporarily bolstered unemployment benefits. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

As New Mexico starts to relax restrictions on shuttered businesses, the head of the state Department of Workforce Solutions clarified Thursday that employees who have been furloughed or laid off will not be able to continue their

Secretary Bill McCamley (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

unemployment benefits without a good reason once they’re asked to come back to work – and that reason can’t be that they’re earning more on unemployment.

In a video interview with Journal editors and writers Thursday, department Secretary Bill McCamley said furloughed employees who are called back by their employers must provide “good cause” for not returning to work and continuing to receive unemployment benefits instead.

“Unless there’s a good cause, you are generally not allowed to refuse that call back to work,” McCamley told the Journal. “Just because you might be getting more money on unemployment than your job, that’s not ‘good cause.'”

The state workforce department currently maintains an email address for tips and leads on labor violations, but McCamley said the department is working on a way for employers to contact the workforce department about COVID-19-specific violations.

“If you’re not going to go back, you have to prove to us that there was a very serious condition that stopped you from going back,” he said.

McCamley’s comments added clarity to a situation that has been arising across the country: laid-off or furloughed workers unwilling to come back to work after being asked to do so by their employers.

McCamley acknowledged some workers may have good reasons for not wanting to return to work during the pandemic, including certain underlying health issues and concern about unsafe conditions at the workplace. He said the state workforce department is working with the New Mexico Department of Health to develop a list of conditions that would allow workers to stay on unemployment once they’re asked to come back.

He added that the state workforce department is also working with the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau to provide guidance for workplaces to stay safe and sanitized until the crisis abates. McCamley said he is hopeful the information for employers and employees will be available within the next several days.

“We do want to make sure that our employers are working very hard to make sure that their workplaces are safe,” McCamley said.

‘Tricky situation’

In some cases, workers are finding that, between their base unemployment rate and the extra $600 weekly check they’re getting courtesy of the federal government through the end of July, they’re taking in more money staying home than they would be back on the job.

Now, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham begins relaxing some of the restrictions on nonessential businesses, that situation has caused tension between employees receiving higher benefit levels and employers trying to get them back to work.

It’s a tension Myra Ghattas is all too aware of.

The owner of Slate Street Cafe, Slate at the Museum and Sixty-Six Acres restaurants in Albuquerque, Ghattas chose to close all three establishments before Lujan Grisham’s order since business had fallen off sharply. That meant laying off her 79 employees. Ghattas said she was glad those workers would be getting the extra $600 per week from the federal government.

“We’re close to our employees,” she said. “… I actually think it’s great that they added some money to unemployment … because you never get your full pay.”

Ghattas applied for the Paycheck Protection Program when it first opened up, counting on the federally backed funding to see her businesses through the hard time.

Now Ghattas is faced with trying to rehire her 79 employees – a necessary step for her to take, and soon, in order for her PPP loan to be converted into a forgivable grant.

Ghattas said Thursday she’s aware she’ll be asking a lot.

“A lot of them are making double (what they made working), some are making triple,” said Ghattas, who is considering returning her PPP loan altogether because of the payroll requirements and other issues. “It makes it very difficult for me to bring them back on payroll because they have to take a substantial pay cut. … That puts us in a tricky situation because we’re hurting our employees.”

Call volume

During the interview, McCamley provided new data on the department’s unprecedented call volume in March and April. On March 30, the department’s busiest day in terms of call volume, the call center received 673,840 calls. McCamley pointed out that number is not the number of callers, because many called multiple times trying to get through. The department was only able to have conversations with 4,137 callers – just 0.6% of the total calls.

McCamley said the department responded by doubling the number of phone lines from 300 to 600, and increasing the number of employees manning the phones from 80 to 236. Additionally, the workforce department added 80 employees who could help adjudicate claims more quickly. On April 28, the department responded to 5,778 callers.

“You can see, over a month, how that process has improved, and how we’ve been able to take care of more people,” he said, acknowledging there is still a ways to go.

The department’s newest unemployment offering, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for self-employed, contract and gig workers, went live Sunday. McCamley said, as of Thursday, 45% of people who applied earlier in the week had already begun to receive payments, which he said was a testament to his agency’s prep work on the front end.

“This is one of the smoothest rollouts of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in the country,” he said. “Our website has not crashed. Money’s getting into people’s pockets, and our folks have really stepped up to the plate.”

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