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Editorial: NM workers need unemployment fixes to finally work

To say the N.M. Department of Workforce Solutions needs some tweaking is like saying the Titantic needed some Flex Seal. And former DWS Cabinet Secretary Bill McCamley and the governor should have seen that iceberg coming.

Granted, Workforce Solutions found itself facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic as tens of thousands of workers found themselves out of a job as businesses closed their doors or scaled back on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s orders, or without customers as people hunkered down under stay-at-home mandates.

And the department did pay out roughly $3.8 billion in jobless benefits during the pandemic – a total that includes federal stimulus plans. But that’s about the extent of its “wins.”

The Legislative Finance Committee reports Workforce Solutions may have overpaid unemployment benefits by as much as $250 million (a total disputed by the agency), with more than half of that in fraudulent claims.

First, many New Mexicans received overpayments due to state error. The governor hasn’t said definitively the state won’t seek to recover that money (presumably already spent by the recipients in many cases) but did say it is unfair to blame the recipient. She’s right about that. And how did people who never applied for benefits end up receiving debit cards from Workforce Solutions?

Then there’s the outright fraud. “We are horrified by it, and we want people held accountable,” the governor said. Also the right response, but easier said than done as international criminal fraud schemes targeted states.

And then there’s the phone problem.

Workforce Solutions says in March it received 1.5 million calls and answered only about 66,000 of them, or roughly 4.4%. Acting Secretary Ricky Serna said his department is now tracking unique phone numbers and either answered or reached out to about 40% of callers. An improvement, but not much consolation if you’re in the 60% stuck on hold/disconnected/told to make yet another attempt to go online.

Some New Mexicans who have called the Journal reported calling more than 100 times a day to get a claim established or a question resolved with no human being answering the phone and no option to leave a voicemail or receive a callback. Serna says the department lacks manpower to use a callback system but it appears calls are decreasing. That may be thanks to the new system or folks going back to work.

Or to people just giving up. The term “trainwreck” is not an exaggeration.

Serna took over for McCamley, who resigned in April citing threats to himself and his family. Clearly, threats should be investigated and prosecuted. Frustration or desperation felt by those who lost their livelihoods does not justify a criminal reaction.

The governor acknowledged the frustration and anger many New Mexicans have felt while trying to obtain unemployment benefits, and said state residents deserve a government that recognizes its weaknesses. No argument there. And she is making the right move by asking Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat whose business helps call centers and who successfully stood up Albuquerque’s 311 system under then-Mayor Martin Chavez, to review the agency’s call center operation and recommend possible changes. He is doing it on a volunteer basis and deserves a public thank you.

Also, the state is in the final stages of contracting with Abba Technologies of Albuquerque to do an outside review of department operations and systems to identify shortcomings. And, presumably, how to fix them.

Finally, the governor is on the right track with her stated intent to funnel federal stimulus money into the depleted state unemployment compensation fund rather than force businesses to pay higher rates in the coming year. “I have zero interest,” she said, “in making it harder for businesses that are working diligently right now.”

Better late than never, the governor has set an ambitious agenda to right the ship at Workforce Solutions. Thousands of New Mexicans frustrated by the agency’s inability to do its job for more than a year are waiting for the results.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.