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State will prod unemployed to return to work, governor says

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks during a news conference after adjournment of a 60-day legislative session in March. The governor said Wednesday her administration would soon release new policies aimed at getting unemployed New Mexicans back to work. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Faced with a stubbornly high unemployment rate, New Mexico will soon adopt new policies aimed at encouraging state residents receiving jobless benefits to go back to work, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told Albuquerque business leaders on Wednesday.

While the Democratic governor did not provide details, she indicated the policies would be unveiled in the next week or so and said expanded unemployment benefits should not be a “disincentive” to work.

“We need to both incentivize employees to go back to work and we’re going to need some accountability aspects,” Lujan Grisham told more than 200 attendees during a virtual meeting of the Economic Forum.

New Mexico has been among the states with the highest unemployment rates for months – only New York and Hawaii had higher jobless rates as of last month – and business owners have expressed frustration about getting employees to return to work.

Some have said they are struggling to compete against expanded unemployment benefits, saying referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses and other incentives have yet to attract a large applicant pool.

But some advocacy groups have countered that essential workers should not be blamed for not wanting to put their family’s health at risk for low-paying jobs that offer minimal benefits.

Rob Black, the president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said changes to the state’s public health order that take effect Friday could encourage some employees to go back to work.

He also said employers that make their employees feel safe at the worksite will likely be the most successful in staffing up.

“I think that’s part of the message employers have to continue with,” Black told the Journal.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate was at 8.3% as of March, and the state has waived its job search requirements for those receiving jobless benefits.

Overall state employment was down by 65,600 jobs from March 2020 – or about 7.7% – with the leisure and hospitality industry making up 18,400 jobs of the total, according to state Department of Workforce Solutions data.

There were slightly more than 90,000 state residents receiving jobless benefits as of this month, down from nearly 120,000 claiming unemployment benefits at the start of January.

But Lujan Grisham said Wednesday some economic sectors are poised for big gains in the coming years, touting the state’s renewable energy industry – particularly wind power – as one specific example.

“New Mexico is now in a position to lead in renewable energy across the nation,” the Democratic governor said.

She also said additional film productions have been eyeing New Mexico as a home base, saying a debate in Georgia over voting laws could lead to projects leaving that state in search of other locations.

Lujan Grisham also said her administration would look to target much of the $1.6 billion it will get over the next two years in federal relief funds at bolstering New Mexico’s largely depleted unemployment fund.

While the governor used her line-item veto authority this month to ax a legislative proposal to earmark $600 million of the federal funds to the unemployment fund, a spokeswoman said at the time the action was necessary due to uncertainty over the federal guidelines for spending the dollars.

On Wednesday, she said she would push for federal approval to use much of the available money to fortify New Mexico’s fund to ensure businesses do not face an increase in the tax rates they pay into it.

“The first priority with that money is clearly unemployment,” Lujan Grisham said.

The governor was also asked about a statewide paid sick leave mandate that will require businesses to let their workers accrue and use up to 64 hours of paid leave annually, starting in July 2022.

She said the implementation delay would give New Mexico businesses time to prepare, but said the new state law would ultimately benefit employees and employers alike.

“I believe that paid leave is a critical policy for a healthy workforce and a stable, growing economic footprint in the state,” Lujan Grisham said.

In the meantime, the governor said New Mexico’s improving COVID-19 outlook could pave the way for a drop in the state’s unemployment rate.

“We need folks to be ready to go back to work,” Lujan Grisham said.


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