Kelly Koepke burst into tears when she read the letter from the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
Koepke, a freelance writer who had been collecting unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic threw her business into a tailspin nearly a year earlier, had been overpaid and owed $14,707, according to the letter she received in February.
Through her persistence, including calls to the Governor’s Office, Koepke managed to resolve what turned out to be an erroneous overpayment claim — the second problem she had encountered in her dealings with the department, which was understaffed and unprepared to deal with an onslaught of unemployment claims as the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the state and wrecked the economy.
But that wasn’t the end of her troubles.
When Koepke logged into the department’s unemployment insurance system at the end of March, her screen went blank, and her history of records appeared to have vanished. She wasn’t alone; other New Mexicans reported the same frustrating experience.
“I have been working since I was 16 years old, and I understand that bureaucracy can be a Byzantine maze of nonsense [and] that systems sometimes don’t work,” Koepke said. “But the fact that … this was still happening a year after the pandemic started here is unforgivable and evidence of just gross incompetence at the highest level.”
Without a doubt, the pandemic and the resulting record-high jobless claims that flooded the department and clogged its computer and phone systems affected its performance. But more than a year has passed since the department received its first pandemic-related unemployment insurance claim, and Koepke and others are questioning why the beleaguered agency is still struggling to get its act together.
“It gets frustrating,” said Erica Cornett, 32, of Clovis.
“I haven’t received any payments for almost five weeks now, and I’m not able to even get in touch with the office to figure out my issue,” she said. “I think that’s the main irritation for people. You can’t get ahold of an actual person to figure out, ‘Well, what do I need to do to resolve any of the problems that might be going on?’ ”
On a Facebook page designed to give people a “safe space” to discuss their unemployment issues and seek advice, New Mexicans are grappling with myriad challenges.
“Can someone list the phone number to reach a human at unemployment?” Nalini Sandhu wrote Thursday. “I’ve been unable to recertify although I’m listed as active. Help!”
Melissa Cadena responded to Sandhu’s plea for help and listed a phone number to the department. But she wished her luck reaching an actual person.
“I finally got through on unemployment,” Bernadette Gurule wrote Friday morning. “Well, at least they will call me back when it [is] my turn. omg it’s been months.”
‘An avalanche of claimants’
Tripp Stelnicki, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, said the situation is “getting better” as the pandemic wanes. Calls to the department over a one-week period, between May 19 and May 26, dropped by 54 percent — a signal more calls are being answered and more people are getting back to work.
While the number of calls has steadily decreased in recent weeks, the department is continuing to get squeezed through no fault of its own, Stelnicki said in a telephone interview.
“We have an avalanche of claimants in an unprecedented situation all converging on a system that was not built to sustain that kind of influx, whether it’s a short-term influx or, as we’ve seen, more of a yearlong, 14 months kind of influx, so we’ve got a 1900s unemployment system dealing with a very 21st-century problem,” he said. “When you have this kind of volume over this length of time, it’s just been triage.”
Fixing the department’s deficiencies will be a long-term project. There are no “silver bullets” or easy fixes, Stelnicki said.
“Preparing for the next pandemic or world-altering unemployment crisis that strikes the nation is kind of like an administration-long task,” he said. “It’s not really something you can do in a month. It’s not something the Legislature can just throw money at and fix. It’s a total restructuring of the agency.”
Ricky Serna, who has been serving as acting secretary of the agency since the abrupt departure of Bill McCamley earlier this month, said the department had a “recession readiness” plan to help it respond to an economic downturn with resources, system improvements, communication strategies and other forms of preparedness.
“What you learn about a pandemic is where the vulnerabilities are,” he said.
At the height of the Great Recession, Serna said the department paid out nearly $815 million in a year. By comparison, the agency has doled out $3.7 billion over the past 14 months, he said.
“What happened is a massive surge all at once for a long period as opposed to a surge over a longer period of time,” Serna said.
Stelnicki said state government has tried to improve the process.
“Over the course of the pandemic … we’ve thrown the kitchen sink at the problem, whether it’s adding tons more staff, expanding the hours of the call center and setting up specific times for people to call so they don’t have to wait so long, all these things,” he said.
But at the same time, the department also had to carry out several new unemployment programs from the federal government that were “sort of foisted upon the states with virtually no time to organize or operationalize,” Stelnicki said, adding the programs were “slapdash.”
“The best we can do is just get the money out as fast as we can,” he said, “and that leads to issues.”
Those issues, according to a blistering report issued to lawmakers earlier this month, are big and serious.
The department overpaid an estimated $250 million in unemployment benefits after the pandemic started, including some $133 million in potentially fraudulent claims, the report found. The department disputes the calculations in the report, saying the figure is actually $105 million, though staff members at the Legislative Finance Committee say they stand by their findings.
Still, officials acknowledge the pandemic exposed structural shortcomings at the department.
In the report presented to lawmakers, legislative analyst Catherine Dry said recent audits by the U.S. Department of Labor and the State Auditor’s Office identified accounting and benefit determination errors caused by “inadequate oversight and incorrect interpretation of state law and federal guidance.”
“Turnover of key leadership, including the [chief financial officer] and the secretary of the agency, occurred during this period,” she told lawmakers.
At the end of the presentation, Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said she would often say the Motor Vehicle Division was the face of state government.
“We all typically interact with that [agency], but lately, for the past year, it’s been the Department of Workforce Solutions,” she said.
And while the MVD used to generate the most gripes from residents, the Department of Workforce Solutions is now the most criticized — and even hated — agency in state government.
“Well, certainly, recently, I think that’s been the case,” Brown said in a telephone interview.
“People are in limbo,” she said. “People are getting frantic and desperate. They have bills to pay, and other claims aren’t being addressed properly. Then on top of that, we have a lot of people who’ve heard about the fraud that’s been occurring in the claims, and if we lose at least $130 million due to fraudulent claims, that gets people pretty upset.”
Brown said it’s “totally unacceptable” that New Mexicans are still experiencing so many problems with the agency more than a year into the pandemic.
“State government needs to adapt to the changing needs,” she said, adding the challenges jobless residents have faced affect their ability to put food on the table.
“I guess I’ll go to the top,” Brown said. “I’d say the governor is really out of touch with working New Mexicans. I don’t think she really appreciates the problems that have occurred because of the poor performance of that department.”
In the past, Brown said, she praised McCamley, the former Workforce Solutions secretary, for being one of the most hardworking people in state government. While he was always responsive when she called with a constituent issue, Brown questioned whether the average person received the same kind of treatment, adding that “real weaknesses” were identified at the department under McCamley’s leadership.
“I think he always meant well, but I do think he can be faulted for not insisting on more verification,” she said. “Checks go out to people who do not deserve them or who are committing fraud to get them. It was almost as if the Department of Workforce Solutions was like a vending machine just spitting out checks.”
A bad choice?
Eric Lucero, who worked at the Department of Workforce Solutions for 26 years before retiring in November 2019, said many of the problems the agency struggled to overcome point to the top.
“I hate to say this because I support [the governor], but she appointed a gentleman to be the Cabinet secretary that was totally green and had no experience or background in workforce, and you really need a workforce professional in there,” he said, referring to McCamley.
But the pandemic pushed McCamley into an untenable situation, Lucero said.
“The poor guy was thrust into this huge fire, and it was a fire, trust me,” he said. “It was not a good fit for him, and it wasn’t a good fit for New Mexico, so I don’t blame him for leaving, but I think [his selection as Cabinet secretary] was a bad choice to begin with.”
Stelnicki said the governor had no regrets or second thoughts about appointing McCamley, who “did everything he possibly could, every day, to lead that agency.”
He said McCamley personally intervened in hundreds of cases with claimants.
“It was all hands on deck, and he was the leader of that ship,” Stelnicki said.
On May 20, a day after the release of the unfavorable report, McCamley took to social media to explain his abrupt resignation from the department, which he wrote was “for no other reason than the safety of myself and my family.”
In addition to receiving threats, he wrote, a firebomb was used to destroy a state car in the department’s Las Cruces office.
McCamley, who has been documenting his movement across the country on social media, did not return a message seeking comment.
‘Patience ran out’
McCamley’s explanation for leaving the agency generated plenty of sympathy, but for New Mexicans who have grown increasingly frustrated with the department, excuses are hard to accept.
“Violence is never the answer, but I strongly feel it never should’ve gotten to that point where people felt the need to throw flaming explosives in order to be heard by the department specifically designed to help jobless people in crisis,” said a Las Cruces woman who asked not to be identified for fear her unemployment insurance claim, which is currently in “limbo,” would be derailed.
The woman, a business owner, said she found it “deeply disturbing” that Lujan Grisham had left “her most vulnerable residents in the Workforce Solutions pressure cooker for over a year with no relief available.”
“Patience ran out for people on this issue a long time ago,” she said. “Heartbreakingly, lots of people just gave up. The people I know personally or from social media groups are deeply traumatized by their experiences with this department.”
Koepke, the freelance writer who was moved to tears when the department informed her in February she owed $14,707, said her interactions with the agency went relatively smoothly until July when she received a notice of an overpayment.
“That is, in my opinion, entirely Workforce Solutions’ fault,” she said, adding the agency asked for net income when it really wanted gross income.
Koepke said she received a reduced benefit until the overpayment was repaid.
But when the department contacted her in February and demanded repayment of $14,707, Koepke said she went through “a very stressful couple of weeks.”
“I was in tears for much of that two weeks because when you tell someone that they owe $14,000 back to you and there’s no explanation given, that’s very stressful,” she said.
Koepke said getting through to Workforce Solutions to try to resolve the issue meant “dialing hundreds of times” before she talked to a “real person.”
“This overpayment letter with the whole amount … was received by lots and lots and lots of people, many of whom were not persistent like I am and just accepted it,” she said.
“I just called and called and called and called and had people call me back and documented everything and sent emails to the governor, to the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, to the Governor’s Office, to Bill McCamley’s office, and eventually it was fixed,” she said.
Koepke said she could blame the pandemic for the challenges Workforce Solutions faced in the beginning.
“But not a year later, not a year and months later,” she said. “The fact that Workforce Solutions is still unable to answer the phone, is still unable to put a system in place that accurately and fairly and in a timely manner deals with the issues that it has been presented with over the last 13, 14 months is unbelievable.”