New Mexico leaders aren’t expecting the latest round of restrictions on local businesses to prompt another spike in unemployment claims. But if there is another uptick, state Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said the department is better prepared now than it was back in the early spring.
After the department’s unemployment call center was deluged by a record number of phone calls in March and April, McCamley said the department worked to add capacity. As a result, he said the department went from an average of just over 60 call-takers before the pandemic reached New Mexico to 161 earlier this week, using a mix of new hires and workers from other state departments who moved to the workforce department on a temporary basis.
“We’ve been hiring fairly constantly over the past few months,” McCamley said.
Even with the new hires, McCamley encouraged unemployed New Mexicans to use the website when possible, noting that the department has added new features to streamline the website in the past several months.
McCamley said an average call regarding an initial claim in April through June, the most recent data made available, took slightly over 14 minutes, while calls about weekly certifications took just over 12:30. Both times met the department’s internal goals of 18 and 15 minutes, respectively.
McCamley acknowledged, however, that those metrics did not include callers who weren’t able to get into the call queue because of call volume, or callers who had a complicated issue that required a supervisor.
McCamley said he thinks the vast majority of those seeking unemployment benefits are able to get what they need through the website.
Another encouraging trend he’s seeing is the declining amount of money the department is borrowing to pay out to those claimants.
After New Mexico’s unemployment trust fund ran dry in September, the state began borrowing money from the federal government to continue funding its unemployment benefits.
McCamley said the department exceeded $100 million borrowed earlier this week, but added that he’s encouraged that the total borrowed has dropped each of the past three weeks, as more New Mexicans transition from state to federal unemployment benefits. Barring an uptick in new claims, McCamley said he expects that trend to continue.
“We’ll have to see what the situation brings, but as of now we’re not anticipating a large spike,” he said.
However, McCamley acknowledged that could change quickly if New Mexicans don’t wear masks and socially distance.
Faced with a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has announced a series of new restrictions over the past two weeks intended to curtail the spread of the virus. Under the new rules, businesses ranging from restaurants to salons are now required to close for two weeks if they have four instances of employees that test positive for the virus.
Restaurants and breweries are required to maintain a log of customers dining on-site for contact tracing purposes, among other restrictions.
The goal, Lujan Grisham said, is to better control the spread of the virus without shutting businesses down completely.
Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, praised the state’s willingness to work with its business community but warned that leaders could move to a more extensive shutdown, similar to what occurred in the spring, if the virus continues to spread.
Such a shutdown has the potential to trigger another wave of layoffs and furloughs that further tax the state’s unemployment system, Black said. He encouraged New Mexicans to patronize local businesses online when possible, and pick up products curb-side.
“I know people are tired,” Black said. “… But we need their help to keep the economy open. And we all have to take personal responsibility for our community.”