New Mexico seeks reforms at unemployment agency

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vowed Friday to replenish the state’s indebted unemployment insurance trust fund with federal relief funds to avoid future tax increases to businesses and said a $300 weekly federal bonus to unemployment benefits will continue through the expiration date in September.

Lujan Grisham held a news conference to announce reform efforts at the Workforce Solutions Department that handles unemployment benefit claims.

She hopes to improve the state’s ability to field telephone calls for unemployment benefit claims. A companion initiative is designed to counteract fraud that has siphoned off an estimated $133 million from the state unemployment trust. Overpayment of legitimate claims are estimated at over $100 million during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lujan Grisham said guidance from the U.S. Treasury allows states to devote new relief funding to rebuilding unemployment trusts and that she absolutely will pursue that.

“I have zero interest in making it harder for businesses that are working diligently — and they’re doing a good job right now, getting jobs out the door, getting people re-employed,” Lujan Grisham said.

Lujan Grisham’s administration is in the process of expanding staffing by 110 positions to a total of 380 staff members at the Workforce Solutions Department.

As unemployment claims soared at the outset of the coronavirus epidemic in March 2020, the Workforce Solutions Department shifted staff away from its anti-fraud office in efforts to answer a deluge of unemployment claims and related telephone calls, according to a recent evaluation from the Legislature’s budget and accountability office.

The governor said New Mexico will now turn for help to federal anti-fraud authorities in attempts to crack down on bogus unemployment claims and cybertheft from the state.

In terms of constituent services, additional job positions would allows the Workforce Solutions Department to answer up to 7,000 unique calls each day, according to Friday’s announcement. There are currently about 6,000 unique calls each day.

Workforce Solutions Secretary Ricky Serna says about 77,000 residents of New Mexico are currently on unemployment. He says the agency has paid out $3.7 billion in benefits over the past 14 months amid economic turmoil linked to the pandemic.

The state is commissioning an outside analysis of management, operations and information technology at the labor agency though an Albuquerque-based firm called Abba Technologies in conjunction with Mark Fidel, president of the information technology firm RiskSense.

Several states have pulled the plug on the $300 weekly federal supplement over concerns that it may discourage people from returning to work when jobs are available.

Lujan Grisham said most people want to return to work but still may have difficulties because of safety concerns, disruptions in child care services and other issues.

She said the best way to encourage a return to work “is to make sure people make living wages at jobs that are safe.”

“You should not expect me to change that $300 benefit,” she said

In efforts to modernize unemployment services, the governor said she is tapping the expertise of call center executive and Democratic state Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque for a review and policy recommendations. Padilla said he is contributing his time on a volunteer basis.