In an effort to improve operations at the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, which has been the subject of stinging criticism over its poor handling of unemployment claims since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced an overhaul of the beleaguered state agency Friday.
The series of reforms include hiring an additional 110 workers to staff the Unemployment Insurance Operations Center to handle a high volume of calls, aggressively clamping down on fraud through a partnership with federal and state law enforcement authorities and other state agencies, and conducting a departmentwide forensic review.
“We’re going to be the first state, I believe, in the country to take a holistic, systemic, short- [and] long-term deep dive into Workforce Solutions and fix every single issue that we identify and address every single opportunity so it’s the best department in the country,” Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is running for reelection next year, said during a news conference at the Governor’s Office.
For some jobless New Mexicans — and the Republican Party of New Mexico, which has been ramping up its attacks against the governor as she seeks a second four-year term in office — the reforms are too little, too late and come more than a year after the pandemic started. They also come as demand on the agency wanes and more people are returning to work.
“This governor has embarrassed New Mexico and its citizens with a department that has failed the people and led to fraud,” Steve Pearce, state Republican Party chairman, said in a statement. “She continues to exhibit her incompetence to oversee a government that works properly for its citizens.”
Asked whether she or her administration could have done more to improve operations at the agency sooner, Lujan Grisham was firm in her response.
“Not during a pandemic,” she said.
The reforms unveiled Friday come two months after the abrupt resignation of former Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley, who stepped down in April, citing safety concerns and threats to him and his family. The changes also come on the heels of a scathing report that found the department has overpaid an estimated $250 million in unemployment benefits, including some $133 million in potentially fraudulent claims.
“This is a national problem,” Lujan Grisham said, adding an estimated $400 billion in federal unemployment benefits might have been lost to fraud nationwide so far.
Tackling fraud will be a big priority.
The administration has established a multiagency Fraud Specialist Team to enhance fraud detection efforts, minimize the impact on claimants who are entitled to benefits, and improve the labor agency’s referral processes with federal and state law enforcement, according to a news release from the Governor’s Office.
“The state will also partner with the state Attorney General’s Office to accelerate prosecution and recovery, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General, on behalf of New Mexico taxpayers,” the news release states.
“Here’s a message to an organized effort nationally or locally for fraud: We’re going to find you,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are going to hold you accountable, and that investigation has already started and will be ongoing until we’ve done everything we can.”
But customer service will be the top priority immediately. Since the pandemic hit New Mexico, the agency has been inundated with phone calls, generating a barrage of complaints from people who say they can’t get anyone to answer.
“The most important thing we’re doing right now is we’re adding 110 individuals to the call center,” the governor said. “We will not tolerate a call going unanswered, and now we get the support to make sure that we can make good on that commitment.”
“With the supplemental staff, the agency estimates its Operation Center will have the capacity to handle about 7,000 unique calls each day,” the news release states. “Over the past three weeks, the center received roughly 6,000 unique calls each day.”
As of Wednesday, 47 new workers were already on the job and undergoing training.
“These new hires will bring the total staff at the Operations Center from 270 to 380 individuals, an almost 300 percent increase from the center’s staffing level (103 workers) at the outset of the pandemic,” according to the news release.
The governor said the department’s systems weren’t designed to handle a huge influx of claims.
In February 2020, the department handled about 14,000 unemployment claims. By June, that number had skyrocketed to 200,000 people receiving unemployment benefits.
“We had, overnight, a 1,300 percent increase,” Lujan Grisham said.
As part of the effort to improve call center operations and constituent responsiveness, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, has volunteered to review and recommend policy changes.
“We’re going to perform … an operational assessment of people, process and technology, everything related to those items,” said Padilla, who is president and chief executive of Altivus CRM Solutions, an Albuquerque-based company that, according to its website, provides “multi-modal contact center operations and consulting services for customer relationship management.”
As a state senator, Padilla said, he receives “calls, emails, text messages, you name it, almost every hour of the day” about Workforce Solutions.
“We’re obviously postmortem, and we’re putting a plan together now to make this thing even better,” he said. “And I’m encouraged by it.”
The state also has contracted Abba Technologies, a New Mexico information technology solutions firm, to “comprehensively analyze” the department’s management, operations and information technology systems. The analysis is expected to take three to six months to complete.
“We’re going to be understanding what’s working — because obviously there are things working at [the Department of Workforce Solutions], no question about it, or else nobody would have received any of the benefits that they were eligible for,” said Mark Fidel, president and co-founder of RiskSense, an Albuquerque-based cybersecurity firm that will be working in conjunction with Abba Technologies.
“But there are obviously some systemic problems,” he added. “Systemically, how do we make sure that the agency can be resilient from an average nonpandemic year to, hopefully never again, a pandemic year.”