The U.S. Senate passed a relief package Wednesday that includes a boost for unemployment. If the House also approves the measure and President Trump signs it, self-employed folks, gig workers or contractors, and furloughed workers qualify. The package also increases how much money people will get. KUNM’s Khalil Ekulona spoke with Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley about how the state was handling the spike in demand.
BILL MCCAMLEY: So a couple of weeks ago, we had about 800 new applications for unemployment assistance. Last week from Monday through close of business on Thursday, we had 10,800 applications. And that is understandable, as people come to us if they’ve had their hours cut or they’ve been unfortunately laid off because of the public safety efforts that we’re taking to keep ourselves safe and keep ourselves alive.
So we’re doing everything we can to make sure we’re processing those as fast as we can, and the big thing we are trying to ask folks is if you are in this situation where you need to apply for unemployment, we are strongly encouraging people to go online to our website, that’s jobs.state.nm.us. You know, our call center – many people just want to call – it is very, very busy over there. We have seen our volume increase like crazy, and there’s been some frustration, which is understandable. We are crash training 50 people this week to help get on the phones next week to help with that load, but if you can go online without having to call in, we very much encourage that strategy.
KUNM: What’s the wait like? How long do you estimate people having to wait?
MCCAMLEY: Well, the state has a law that requires a week wait. It’s actually called a waiting week in the law, where if you applied say last week, this week there would be a waiting period, and you would be receiving your benefits next week. We anticipate that we should be able, as of now, to be able to process all the claims in that time period. So it should be on schedule. Though we have received a high volume, we’re trying to make our processes a little more efficient and triage folks, but we think that we should be able to get folks their benefits, as of now, without any delays.
KUNM: We’re hearing that some of the restriction that are usually in place are suspended. What are those suspended restrictions right now?
MCCAMLEY: Right, so we have waived the work search feature. Under normal unemployment regulations, you have to search for work in order to get your benefit. Well, this is an extraordinary situation, and we’re actually hoping that most of the people who have lost their hours or lost their jobs have only done so temporarily, and that when this situation passes, as many of those folks as possible will go back to those jobs they had before.
KUNM: Is there enough money in the coffers to handle the increased demand that you’re seeing?
MCCAMLEY: Right now the answer is yes. As of last week, we had $465 million in what is called the unemployment trust fund. That currently is a fairly healthy amount, especially when compared to other states.
KUNM: Personally and in general in your position for the state, what are you worried about as of today?
MCCAMLEY: We just want to make sure that for right now, we’re focusing on getting people help. There’s a lot of folks out there that are worried about their situations, understandably. And the governor has made sure to tell every single one of us on the cabinet that we have to use every tool at our disposal to be able to help people. So we are working very, very hard on all of these new features, these new services, trying to get as much money to people out there as possible, so they can afford to pay their rent, they can afford to pay their bills. That’s really what our focus is now.
KUNM: How can people help so we all get through this together?
MCCAMLEY: If they want to volunteer, food banks are asking for volunteers if you want to help in a socially responsible manner, please reach out to your local food bank. But mostly, you can stay home if you’re a non-essential person. And it’s hard, because we like doing things together. And after a while of doing this, it can be difficult, but that is the best way of getting through this. And the people you’re gonna help the most by staying home are our health care workers out there on the front lines.
This interview originally aired as part of our podcast Your New Mexico Government, which has your daily coronavirus updates and stories from the community. It's a collab between KUNM Radio, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.