New Mexico’s phone system for unemployment benefits is hanging up on thousands of callers

Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

A man wearing a bandanna to protect against the coronavirus waits in Santa Fe for a bus to take him to a job interview in Española.

On Monday, March 30, the state of New Mexico announced a new and improved phone system for people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and need help getting their unemployment checks, which many need to survive. Within hours, the system buckled under the weight of more than 500,000 calls. 

The new call-in system, operated by the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS), did little but hang up on people and tell them to try their call later, owing to the unprecedented volume. 

“We have had half-a-million incoming calls by lunchtime,” said Bill McCamley, the cabinet secretary for DWS.

The phone system was supposed to supplement the DWS website (jobs.state.nm.us), where salaried employees who have lost their jobs — and in the coming weeks, independent contractors, gig economy workers and the self-employed are encouraged to file unemployment claims. 

But not all New Mexicans have computers or broadband; some are not comfortable online and would rather talk to a live person; and still others run into complications with the online application and need human help.

The website’s automated system for chat queries only connects people to a bot, which directs them back to the website and can’t answer specifics. So people call. And call.

As of March 31, 84 operators were attending to a system with a 600-phone-line capacity, a department spokesperson said. The department is trying to reduce call volumes by asking people to call on specific days of the week, depending on the last digit of their social security number. Those with social security numbers ending in 0 to 3 are asked to call on Mondays; those with numbers ending in 4 to 6 are asked to call on Tuesdays; and people with numbers from 7 to 9 are asked to call on Wednesdays. Thursdays and Fridays are for all callers.

Things did not go as planned. Many callers were unable to enter the overloaded system, which quickly jammed. The phone system does not allow people to leave a message or leave a callback number. It directs callers to choose from menu items and enter their social security number, then tells them “all customer service agents are serving other callers” and hangs up. 

To handle the volume, McCamley says his department is “crash training” new operators, condensing what is usually a five-week training program into one or two weeks. The goal is to have more than 120 workers activated in the next four weeks. A spokesperson for the department added that the staff is reviewing updates to the system that would ensure that all who call can leave a callback number for operators before the system hangs up.

In the wake of coronavirus-related business closures, an unprecedented 31,849 initial unemployment claims were filed during the week of March 19-26, according to unofficial numbers released last week by the DWS.

The numbers are only expected to rise. The federal government’s stimulus package will soon begin to offer what it calls Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The program expands unemployment benefits and extends them to independent contractors, the self-employed and gig economy workers — an estimated 62,000 additional New Mexicans. States are waiting for instructions from Washington before they can release a timeline as to when the benefits will become available.

“We need a few weeks to get agreements in place with the Department of Labor and to implement some change in our process to make it work,” said McCamley. “When we have a timeline of when we can open it up, we will let people know.”

Nationally, nearly 1 in 5 households have experienced a layoff or reduction in work hours, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. Lower-income workers and women, especially women of color, are the most affected. In the poll, a quarter of households making less than $50,000 had experienced reduced hours or a job loss.  And since women in New Mexico are paid 84 cents per every dollar made by men, they have far less economic security at this time.

The most efficient method for filing an initial unemployment claim continues to be online at jobs.state.nm.us, McCamley said. He urged people to use the website whenever possible. 

Searchlight New Mexico is a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.