New Mexico seeks labor agency reforms

SANTA FE, NM (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday vowed to replenish the state’s leveraged Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund with federal aid to avoid future corporate tax hikes, saying a weekly federal bonus of $300 US dollars for unemployment benefits will continue to expire in September.

Lujan Grisham held a press conference to announce reform efforts in the Workforce Solutions division, which processes unemployment claims.

She hopes to improve the state’s ability to take phone calls for unemployment benefit claims. An accompanying initiative aims to counter fraud that siphoned an estimated $133 million from the state unemployment fund. Overpayment of eligible claims is estimated at over $100 million during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lujan Grisham said the US Treasury Department’s guidance allows states to allocate new aid money to rebuild unemployment funds and that she is committed to pursuing it.

“I have no interest in making it harder for companies that are hardworking – and they’re doing a good job right now, putting jobs out the door, putting people back into employment,” said Lujan Grisham.

Lujan Grisham administration is in the process of adding 110 positions to the workforce in the Workforce Solutions department for a total of 380 employees.

As jobless claims surged at the start of the coronavirus epidemic in March 2020, the Workforce Solutions division pulled employees out of its anti-fraud office to answer a spate of jobless claims and related household and household phone calls, according to a recent lawmaker assessment accounting.

The governor said New Mexico will now turn to federal anti-fraud agencies to address bogus unemployment claims and cybertheft by the state.

In terms of constituent services, additional posts would allow the Workforce Solutions division to answer up to 7,000 individual calls a day, according to Friday’s announcement. Currently there are about 6,000 unique calls daily.

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

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

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

Lujan Grisham said most people want to return to work but may still be struggling due to safety concerns, childcare disruptions and other issues.

She said the best way to encourage a return to work “is to make sure people have secure jobs for a living”.

“You shouldn’t expect me to change that $300 performance,” she said

In efforts to modernize unemployment services, the governor said she is drawing on the expertise of call center manager and Democratic state senator Michael Padilla of Albuquerque for a review and policy recommendations. Padilla said he volunteers his time.

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