Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday announced an overhaul at the Department of Workforce Solutions intended to begin the process of improving the agency’s operating systems, with a specific emphasis on the unemployment benefits program that has disbursed almost $4 billion in relief to New Mexicans in need over the course of the pandemic, as well as the agency’s ability to effectively field and process calls and other outreach from unemployment claimants.
Cumulatively targeted at both improving the agency’s handling of unemployment claims as well as its ability to function effectively and help New Mexicans find and retain gainful employment, the announcement encompasses several overlapping areas:
- Increasing staff and enhancing performance at the agency’s Unemployment Insurance Operations Center; bringing in an outside expert to comprehensively review call center operations and recommend strategic short- and long-term improvements to more effectively resolve claimants’ needs;
- Aggressively targeting fraud through a partnership with federal and state law enforcement authorities as well as state agencies;
- Bringing in an independent consultant and expert to conduct an agency-wide forensic review, coordinate the creation and development of a management and operations overhaul of the department, and create and implement an action plan for addressing short- and long-term critical priorities.
“New Mexicans expect and deserve a state government that can deliver for them no matter the circumstances,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “Too many agencies for too many years–even decades–were underfunded, hollowed out from the inside, unprepared for emergencies. It’s our job to fix it–to get solutions now and to make sure everything we do has a long-term evaluatory impact. We will keep getting New Mexicans the unemployment assistance they are entitled to, and we will help New Mexicans who are able to work get back to work, and this department–this entire government–will always be accountable to New Mexicans.”
Addressing Operations Center
The administration will hire an additional 110 workers to staff the Unemployment Insurance Operations Center, fielding more calls and assisting more claimants in need; as of Wednesday, June 9, 47 new workers had already been hired and are in training, with another roughly 60 to be hired and trained this week and next. 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. (Over the course of the pandemic, the administration has sporadically and temporarily brought in groups of state government workers to assist the Operations Center.)
The intent is to ensure 100 percent of callers each day are answered. With the supplemental staff, the agency estimates its Operation Center will have the capacity to handle about 7,000 unique calls each day. Over the past three weeks, the center received roughly 6,000 unique calls each day.
In addition, to improve call center and constituent responsiveness operations at the agency, state Sen. Michael Padilla has volunteered in his personal capacity to review and recommend policy changes concerning the effectiveness of the agency’s call center and response operations.
As president and chief executive of Altivus CRM Solutions, Padilla, which provides multi-modal contact center operations and consulting services for customer relationship management, has two decades of experience in designing and implementing contact centers and strategies for effective constituent or customer engagement. Padilla’s assessment is intended to maximize efficiency and identify opportunities for more and more effective claimant resolutions while recommending a strategic approach to call center staffing in the future.
“We have added staff, and we will add and train more,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “But I want our approach to be strategic — I want us to ask why these systems didn’t always work the way they needed to in an emergency and get to the bottom of how they’re going to work better. An outside, expert perspective will be invaluable in helping us answer these questions, and I’m grateful Michael has volunteered to help lend his experience to this effort on behalf of New Mexicans.”
“This will be a lot of work, and I’m glad to do it,” said Sen. Padilla. “This is what I do — we’re going to take a comprehensive look at what works and what doesn’t and where we can improve, and I think at the end of this process we’ll have a great roadmap for strategic, structural improvements that will really make a difference for New Mexicans now and for years to come. I’m happy to volunteer my time in this way.”
Enhancing Fraud Detection and Response
The administration has established a multi-agency Fraud Specialist Team — incorporating fraud specialists from the Human Services Department, Taxation and Revenue Department and Department of Information Technology — to assist the Department of Workforce Solutions in enhancing fraud detection efforts, minimizing the impact on claimants who are entitled to benefits and improving the labor agency’s referral processes with federal and state law enforcement. 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 in instances of fraud.
“Fraud is an ongoing issue at labor agencies across the country, and during the pandemic we have seen an increase in identity thieves seeking to take advantage of state systems,” said Acting Workforce Solutions Secretary Ricky Serna. “We want to protect bona fide New Mexico claimants as well as the integrity of our state system, and by bringing in partners to help us accurately detect fraud and enhance data analysis to identify trends in fraud detection, we can be better about our approach, and we can get more cases to federal and state authorities efficiently, and ensure New Mexicans are not victimized now or in the future.”
Getting Back on the Right Track
The state has contracted Abba Technologies, a New Mexico IT solutions firm, to comprehensively analyze the management, operations and information technology systems of the Department of Workforce Solutions and help implement a framework to ensure the agency can most effectively handle its critical priorities — unemployment insurance, employment services, fraud mitigation and risk — moving forward. The analysis is projected to take 3-6 months.
Mark Fidel, president and co-founder of RiskSense, a leading Albuquerque cybersecurity firm, will work in conjunction with Abba Technologies, leading the effort to conduct the review and development of a roadmap that will help restructure and solidify the agency both in the present and for years to come. Fidel, who has spent his professional career helping public agencies and others improve complex networks, will help the agency respond to weaknesses identified in a recent Legislative Finance Committee report as well as identify new strategies for improved long-term operations.
The areas of emphasis of the review will include more than the unemployment insurance program; the governor has tasked the contractors with ensuring the state’s employment services, which will be essential in helping New Mexicans return to the workforce in coming weeks and months, among other programs, are analyzed for weaknesses and structural recommendations.
“We’re going to take a deep dive in our assessment, and my hope is that through our efforts we can empower agency leaders now and in the future with new tools and a better understanding of consistent and effective operations,” said Fidel.
The Department of Workforce Solutions assists job-seekers, temporarily displaced workers and businesses seeking to connect with workers. Its most pressing concerns over the past 15 months have been the management of an unprecedented deluge of unemployment claims brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the disbursement of billions in funds to hundreds of thousands of displaced workers throughout the state and oversight of a series of novel federal unemployment programs intended to address the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s workforce.As with state labor agencies across the nation, the state Department of Workforce Solutions has at times been overwhelmed by demand. As a result, it has encountered some difficulties in meeting the needs of every constituent in as effectively and in as timely a fashion as the Lujan Grisham administration expects. Overpayments have resulted, primarily through federal emergency unemployment programs, nationwide.
The agency has for weeks been engaged in the process of recovering and working with claimants with respect to the roughly $113 million overpaid in unemployment insurance through primarily federal emergency unemployment programs. Some claimants are eligible for waivers through which their overpayments will be forgiven; some claimants will see their weekly benefits off-set to pay back an overpayment; and some will see their appeals remanded through the adjudication process.
Return to Work
The Department of Workforce Solutions’ Workforce Connection Centers are actively coordinating with employers in their communities to promote job openings and schedule hiring events as the agency works to connect unemployment claimants with employment opportunities. The Connection Centers are open by appointment; more information is available here.
The department is also hosting weekly workshops on resume and interview skills for job-seekers, with more information at dws.state.nm.us/workshops.
The state reinstated work search requirements for unemployment recipients on May 9. Claimants beginning this week are required to demonstrate a minimum of two work searches per week, or else risk forfeiture of benefits.
In addition, the Higher Education Department has partnered with the Department of Workforce Solutions to provide $1.5 million to colleges, universities, and adult education programs to create or enhance accelerated direct-to-career training programs in high-demand fields, free of cost to participants.
Also, since Jan. 1, 2021 the Economic Development Department has awarded $11.8 million to 61 companies to train new workers or retrain existing employees who want to learn new skills and boost their salaries. The money will support 1,511 jobs.
The Economic Development Department is also partnering with the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority on the $200 million LEDA Recovery Grant Program that makes $100,000 available to small businesses that commit to hiring back workers over the next several months or creating new jobs. The money creates an incentive for businesses to speed hiring and bring back employees sooner.
The Early Childhood Education and Care Department provided emergency funding, professional development, and technical assistance to child care providers across the state, enabling them to keep serving the children of essential workers through the pandemic and ensuring they survived the economic downturn to continue serving New Mexican families as the state recovers and returns to work. ECECD also expanded child care assistance eligibility to include New Mexicans who are searching for work and graduate students pursuing advanced degrees.
Restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses have been able to deduct most if not all of their sales from gross receipts taxes from March through June, providing much-needed cash flow for an industry hit hard by the pandemic. The tax relief is being administered by the Taxation and Revenue Department.
The Taxation and Revenue Department has also already distributed almost $95 million in rebates to New Mexico working for families through a middle-class tax cut signed into law this year by Gov. Lujan Grisham.