By Ike Swetlitz and Ed Williams
Last March, Teresa Espindola, a 46-year-old painter in Tijeras, was having problems getting her unemployment payments. She was locked out of New México’s online system and couldn’t get anyone on the phone to help her. After months of fruitless phone calls, she emailed a state employee named Bill.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Espindola said. All she knew was that he worked for the department she was having trouble with.
In fact, her correspondent was Bill McCamley, the secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS), the state agency that administers unemployment benefits. As the department floundered under a wave of out-of-work New Mexicans, he started helping people resolve their issues himself. Soon after his e-mail exchange with Espindola, another employee fixed her problem — caused by a typo in the computer system.
McCamley’s intervention demonstrates just how much the pandemic has strained the state’s unemployment system. Scores have applied for unemployment benefits but didn’t see the cash for weeks or months, if ever.
Unable to reach anyone on the state’s telephone hotline, they’ve been left in financial turmoil, sometimes facing hunger or eviction without the public assistance they’d been promised. Sometimes their accounts are locked because of a simple spelling error or an incorrect birthday. In many cases, applicants have no idea why the payments aren’t coming through. Meanwhile, the department reports rising hostility towards employees.
Since the fall, McCamley said, more than 100,000 people have been receiving benefits at any given time — more than 10 times the number at the pandemic’s start — and his department has distributed over $3 billion in funds, the equivalent of about 40 percent of the current state budget.
But even if the department is able to help the vast majority of people with their issues, that can still leave thousands out in the cold.
“These are very serious, longstanding and widespread problems,” said Felipe Guevara, an attorney with the New México Center on Law and Poverty. “I empathize with DWS. They have a very difficult job right now, and they’ve been historically underfunded. But the way these unemployment programs have been rolled out over the past year has resulted in a lot of people suffering unnecessarily.”
“Whenever there are people struggling and hurting, we’re not doing well enough.”
Bill McCamley, Dept. of Workforce Solutions
More than 200 people contacted Searchlight with problems they’ve had with their unemployment applications. Reporters spoke with more than a dozen, many of whom described the devastating effects of the holdups. Some applicants have waited nearly a year to receive payment. Others have described going hungry, even eating from the trash to survive. Still others have lost their homes, or come close, as they waited for their issues to be fixed by the state.
“Whenever there are people struggling and hurting, we’re not doing well enough,” McCamley said.
Tammy Aragon, a financial worker in Albuquerque, got locked out of her account more than two months ago. She has resorted to selling her personal belongings to pay her bills, and donating plasma twice a week for gas money. Guillermo Miera, who used to work at a laundromat and do landscaping in Albuquerque, got a letter from the DWS in August stating that he should get $169 a week but hasn’t seen any of that money. He lost his car, and his internet was cut off. It took him months to reach anyone on the phone at the unemployment office.
“Getting through to them is like trying to see Jesus in person,” Miera said. And when he did, they were no help.
Nesbly Saenz, a mother of three and professional caregiver in Las Cruces, caught COVID-19 from a coworker in December. She qualified for a weekly payment of $300, but an unknown error put a hold on her application before she received any money.
“I can’t even describe the anxiety,” she said. “I was homeless as a child. I’ll die before I let my kids go through that.”
After trying to reach the DWS call center for over a month, she gave up. Her finances completely drained, she decided she had no choice but to return to work even though she was still suffering from debilitating headaches and tremors.
“Having COVID was terrible,” she said. “But the stress of having my unemployment claim on hold while my bills were piling up and rent was coming due? That was even worse. I still get the shakes just thinking about it.”
At times, frustration over these problems has boiled over into aggression in New México and elsewhere.
“We’ve had death threats,” McCamley said. “We’ve had a car blown up in one of our parking lots. We’ve had windows broken.”
An unknown person set a state vehicle on fire at the Las Cruces DWS office just after Thanksgiving, according to reports from the city’s fire department and the state police. Photographs show a white Nissan Altima with a broken windshield, a dangling grille, and a hole blasted in the middle of a crumpled hood. Investigators found a burnt rag and pieces of a broken beer bottle. “It was possible an improvised incendiary device was utilized to start the fire,” a state police report said.
Alexa Tapia, who coordinates the National Employment Law Project’s work on unemployment programs, said that it’s become “extremely commonplace” for unemployment-office workers to fear for their safety. She used to work as the special assistant to the secretary of the Kansas Department of Labor up until December, and she said that her agency staff was also the target of death threats.
“Many people are still struggling to receive benefits, and they’re getting understandably desperate,” Tapia said.
Calling for Help
The main way for a New Mexican to get their issues with benefits resolved is to contact the state’s unemployment call center. But it’s difficult to get through to anyone. Since the beginning of March, the department has received 18 million calls, and representatives were only able to answer about 1.2 million of them, or 6.6 percent, according to data provided by the DWS.
McCamley told Searchlight that the department doesn’t have enough staff to pick up the phone whenever someone calls. It has been constantly hiring and training new employees since the beginning of the pandemic, raising the number of call-center agents from 84 to 176, with more coming. It’s hired contractors and brought in volunteers from other state agencies to help resolve issues, and of course McCamley himself.
“We’re all hands on deck here, that includes me,” McCamley said. “There’s no way I’ve helped less than 10,000 people. There’s no way.”
But even with the increase in staffing, the department still has to leave millions of calls unanswered. Sometimes people can leave their number and ask for a callback later that day, but McCamley explained that the department only accepts a limited number of these requests. It’s a balancing act, he said: If representatives spend more time calling people back, they have less time to pick up the phone when people call in the first place.
The difficulties are not unique to New México. In fact, federal Department of Labor data shows New México in line with the national average for punctually sending regular unemployment-insurance payments throughout the pandemic.
Tapia, from the National Employment Law Project, pointed out that state unemployment agencies around the country were underfunded, understaffed, and overburdened even before the pandemic. That’s led to delays in getting aid to people throughout the country.
“There’s been no state agency that we’re able to point to that has handled this swimmingly,” Tapia said.
And a lot has depended on the federal government, which has been a source of frustration for state administrators like McCamley. Congress kept creating new programs with different rules, and federal and state administrative agencies had to hammer out the specifics each time. That threw unemployed people into a state of confusion and forced agencies like McCamley’s, which are accustomed to having months to update their procedures, to try and adapt.
“Every time Congress basically changes the game on us, and changes the situation for the claimants, they call us,” McCamley said. “And that has been hugely frustrating.”
Congress extended unemployment benefits last week, and DWS said in a press release there would be no interruption this time.
Ike Swetlitz and Ed Williams are Staff Writers with Searchlight New Mexico, a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New México.
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