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Final notice makes for a rotten start to 2021

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A nightmare showed up in Albuquerque resident Anthony Gonzalez’s mailbox on Monday: A letter informing him that his unemployment benefits had been overpaid, and he now owed the state just under $7,000.

That’s money that Gonzalez – whose girlfriend is currently eight months pregnant – said he doesn’t have, and wasn’t expecting to pay.

“It’s just giving me bad anxiety, and I don’t know what else to do,” said Gonzalez, 23.

Like so many New Mexicans, Gonzalez lost his job – working as a server at Garcia’s Kitchen – at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and applied for unemployment benefits.

After being approved, he said he received state and federal unemployment benefits for about a month and a half before turning down a chance to return for fewer hours. By June, he said he’d taken another job at a Chevron station.

Gonzalez was originally notified in September that his benefits had been overpaid — a claim he disputes. He submitted an appeal to the state, but it was never processed correctly.

The final notice that arrived Monday state that Gonzalez has 15 days to repay the state total – $6,984 – before his case is turned over to the state’s legal department for possible wage garnishment.

“I’m barely living check-to-check as it is already,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez estimated that he has called the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions office about 50 times. Each time, he said he’s told all agents are busy before the call disconnects – an experience other claimants have shared with the Journal.

Overall, Gonzalez said he’s called about 11 different people to get his claim resolved. So far, it hasn’t worked.

These cases aren’t common, but they do happen. DWS spokeswoman Stacy Johnston didn’t comment on the specifics of the situation, but acknowledged that the department has had instances where claimants have been overpaid since the beginning of the pandemic, and have been asked to repay the state.

Gonzalez said he appealed the decision for a second time this week, which is currently pending. Until it’s resolved, he, and his pregnant girlfriend, are nervously hoping the worst doesn’t happen as 2021 begins.

“She depends on me right now, you know?” Gonzalez said. “And there’s going to be a kid depending on me February 3rd.”

Stephen Hamway covers economic development, healthcare and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at shamway@abqjournal.com.

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