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In 2020, A Labor Day like no other

Nancy Swass, 60, stands in the parking lot of IMF Tires on Eubank NE. She lost her job as an in-home caregiver, which also provided her housing, not long after the pandemic hit. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Labor Day is first and foremost about celebrating workers, and no year in recent memory has been harder on the average New Mexico worker than 2020.

As of late August, more than 88,000 New Mexicans were receiving weekly unemployment benefits – more than 12 times the total at the same point last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate stood at 12.7% in July, the highest figure since the state started tracking the rate in the 1970s. And it isn’t over yet.

“I think we’ll be feeling the pain on this … for a couple of years to come,” said Reilly White, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.

It’s a complete reversal from the situation at the beginning of the year, when the state’s unemployment rate had dropped to nearly record lows.

In the months since, the COVID-19 pandemic and measures designed to contain its spread caused the economy to slow down drastically across the whole nation.

Some shops and restaurants closed indefinitely and furloughed their employees. Tourist travel to New Mexico fell off dramatically during what is normally the beginning of high season. And many jobs disappeared as well. By July, New Mexico’s leisure and hospitality sector was down 25,200 jobs compared to the previous July, a 24.7% decline in just 12 months. Some workers got their jobs back when the state eased its restrictions, but many are still waiting.

While a recent jobs report painted a more positive employment picture nationally, White said New Mexico – the only state to post a significant decline in its labor force in the last monthly update – may have a long road to recovery.

“It takes a much longer time to hire than to fire,” White said.

Even in a pandemic, there are options for people looking for new lines of work.

Joy Forehand, operations manager at Workforce Connection of Central New Mexico, which works with job seekers across the Albuquerque metro area, said her office has seen a steady stream of customers, primarily people looking to move out of the food service and hospitality sectors.

Forehand encouraged workers looking for other opportunities to contact Workforce Connection and make an appointment with the organization’s career counselors.

On a day meant to celebrate workers, Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley suggested taking time out to thank those doing thankless tasks, from grocery store clerks to road graders.

“This stuff is a big deal, and it’s so important that we recognize those folks,” he said.

Even in a trying time, New Mexicans have found ways to keep going and keep working. A few who work or who would like to be working took time last week to talk with the Journal about how they’ve managed during a unique year.

Heather Sanchez, a music teacher at Rio Grande High School, is in her 23rd year of teaching, but she says adjusting to the rigors of remote learning has made her feel like a rookie again. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Labor of love

Heather Sanchez is in her 23rd year of teaching, but the 2020-21 school year has put her in the shoes of a first-time educator again.

“It has been frustrating. It has been difficult, and it’s been as challenging as my first year teaching,” the Rio Grande High School teacher said. “But it gets better. This week was better than last week.”

Sanchez is required to teach music classes – including choir, guitar and mariachi – through a computer hookup.

It’s a change teachers throughout Albuquerque Public Schools, the state and the nation are facing – educating students remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instructors are having to find ways to manage science classes, physical education lessons and other inherently hands-on subjects from afar.

Sanchez admitted there have been some hurdles – like when she discovered some classes can’t be as boisterous online as they are face-to-face.

“Singing has to be quiet; otherwise it’ll make feedback, or it’ll glitch out,” she said.

And it’s been a lot of work.

Sanchez typically puts in at least 12 hours a day, primarily from home. On her longest days, she’ll be on the clock for 18 hours.

During a normal, in-person school year, she was working closer to eight or nine hours a day.

But for her, it’s been worth it to see students’ smiles or enthusiastic waves through the webcam.

“Being able to see the students and interact with them and know how happy they are to be there has been amazing,” Sanchez said.

Music class brings a normal rhythm to the chaos of the pandemic.

“During a regular year, the electives are what children come to school for – a lot of children,” Sanchez said. “They come to school for their electives, and online it’s the same.”

Remote learning largely takes more time per task and greater preparation than in-person, Sanchez said.

“If I want to do a certain activity with my class, first I have to watch a tutorial,” she said. “Well what if it wasn’t a good tutorial? Then I have to watch another tutorial. And then I try it and then it fails – it’s a whole process of trial and error.”

So, this Labor Day, you’ll find Sanchez using some of the holiday to prep for the week ahead.

Hollow Spirits executive chef Tristin Rogers. (Courtesy of Tristin Rogers)

The new norm

As a father, Tristin Rogers knew he had to find a way to provide for his family and as a leader find a way to reassure his work crew that everything would be OK when the pandemic shut most businesses down in March.

“I think the first thing was obviously to try to get as many of the benefits and unemployment that you could,” said Rogers, executive chef at Hollow Spirits Distillery. “That was the first plan which I signed up for right away. After that, you start contemplating on things that you do outside of the kitchen, what you’re good at outside of the kitchen, to see if you could actually, if need be, get another job. It comes down to that. Trying to find work to be able to provide for the family.”

The pandemic put Rogers and his wife’s hopes of buying a new home on hold.

“The good thing about it was me and my wife were already planning on buying a house, which obviously took a big halt because of COVID and everything and being furloughed from work,” he said. “We had a nice nest egg but obviously you always want to have that plan, and the plan of action was to start looking for work.”

Taking care of the workers he oversees was another priority for Rogers.

“It’s definitely hard to sit all your people down, especially since they work so hard for you,” he said. “They do so much already, and they’re underpaid, and then to sit there and tell them, ‘Hey what you do for your livelihood is in jeopardy,’ and not having any answers was definitely something that was always playing in my mind and what we can do to help.”

Rogers researched unemployment benefits as well as COVID-19 safety guidelines and tried to provide his employees with as much information as possible.

“They look up to you so you kind of have to put on that straight face and just kind of reassure them that everything is OK even though deep down I was completely unaware if everything was going to be OK,” he said.

Many Hollow Spirits employees were able to find a temporary safety net with unemployment benefits that were higher than their regular pay.

The time off for Rogers was a strange and unusual adjustment.

“Being forced to actually do that was difficult,” he said. “Being a chef, you’re going 100 miles an hour, six, seven days a week, and I think the hardest transition was not having to get up in the morning and rush, rush, rush … I went a little stir crazy the first couple of months.”

Being furloughed allowed Rogers to spend more time with his pregnant wife and their three children. The couple welcomed their baby girl July 31.

“It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “It’s crazy how much of a blessing this is, but obviously it’s not a blessing because this pandemic has taken so many lives, but it’s given us an opportunity to sit back and reevaluate how we look at things and especially as chefs slowing down, getting to smell the flowers, spend time with your kids, relearning how to be in public, reprogramming ourselves to be family men again. It was a challenge but also something we don’t get to do.”

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Nancy Swass had just nailed down a job as a caregiver when the pandemic hit, forcing her back to square one.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

On the margins

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, but few have suffered more than those who were already on the margins when the crisis began.

Nancy Swass, 60, had been homeless on and off for years before the coronavirus arrived in New Mexico. However, her year began with a stroke of good fortune: She found a job as an in-home caregiver for a friend’s brother in January. The new job provided room and board, along with a bit of spending money.

Just a couple months later, however, that job – like so many others this year – fell through. Swass was back out on the street at the beginning of April, this time with far fewer resources to draw upon.

“I’ve been homeless before in Albuquerque, and so I know how to do it,” Swass said. “It’s not comfortable. It’s not pleasant, but I know how to do it.”

In addition to leading to a record-setting number of unemployment claims, the pandemic has shuttered a lot of resources for those in Swass’ place.

Swass said places where she was able to spend time in the past, including community centers and libraries, generally weren’t open to the public earlier in the year. No one was hiring, and people who were able to find work seemed to be outside Swass’ age bracket.

“Everybody is 40 years younger than me,” she said.

Swass added that filing for unemployment has proven almost impossible from the street. After her phone was stolen, Swass said, she asked to borrow phones from strangers and friends to call the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions’ office, only to be stuck on hold for hours.

“Whoever you borrow the phone from is only going to stand there for so long,” Swass said.

Even after months of trying, Swass said she’s still waiting on benefits from the state workforce department. In lieu of permanent work, she’s had to get creative, taking odd jobs like painting the outside of a building.

Despite the difficult situation, Swass still makes it a point to give back to those in even greater need. Whenever she has extra nonperishable food, she’ll put it in empty newsstands for other people experiencing homelessness to find.

“Even I can find someone who has less than me, to give something to them,” Swass said.

A year like 2020 can test those who believe in a higher power. But even in hard times, Swass said she hasn’t lost her faith or her willingness to help others.

“Come up with creative ways to help someone who has less than you,” Swass said. “God blesses that.”

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