Debates among New Mexico lawmakers over the best way to use federal relief funds is likely far from over. Last week, the state’s Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) learned that the estimated number of New Mexicans to receive a one time bump in their unemployment benefits will likely be anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 fewer than expected.
During the second special legislative session this year, which took place during the week of Thanksgiving, lawmakers passed a COVID-19 relief bill, allowing the state to use additional federal funds from the CARES Act.
Part of the package that state lawmakers passed allocated $194 million to the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions in order to add a one time supplemental payment of $1,200 to those who qualify for unemployment benefits. Workforce Solutions originally estimated that 140,000 people would qualify for that extra payment. But according to an LFC activity report sent to committee members last week, the department now estimates that 110,000 to 140,000 will qualify for the payment.
Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said his department based the original estimation on how many people qualified for unemployment benefits in June.
“We were saying, ‘Okay, if we have X amount of people get in that match where we were at our height, what would that be? And let’s make sure we have that amount in there,” McCamley said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the idea that some communities in the state feel they don’t have to comply with the state’s restrictions are “tantamount to opening up a pool and having a ‘pee’ section. This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”
The statement came during a Friday afternoon press conference that included updates on the state’s unemployment efforts, federal stimulus money and more. But Lujan Grisham also continued to urge residents across the state to comply with orders to make sure New Mexico can continue to flatten the curve of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Related: DOH announces six more COVID-19-related deaths and 153 test positive cases Friday
She also addressed those who live near surrounding states that are themselves easing restrictions, and whether those who live in New Mexico would travel . “I worry greatly about the impact here,” the governor said.
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.
A bill that would protect pregnant workers passed 6-0 in the Senate Public Affairs Committee in a jovial, bipartisan mood Thursday night. HB 25 amends the state Human Rights Act to protect pregnant workers or new moms from discriminatiom.
Democratic Sen. Liz Stefanics, of Cerillos, and Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey, of Albuquerque, are sponsoring the bill. The accommodations the bill allows for are things such as water at a workstation, extra bathroom breaks and a stool. Also, an employer could not force a pregnant worker to take time off from work due to pregnancy. The bill passed the House floor 65-0 last week.
A Senate committee on Tuesday snubbed Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s call to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next several years, advancing instead a more modest bill backed by business groups. Dueling proposals for increasing the wages of New Mexico’s lowest-paid workers collided in a packed hearing of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee. After a flurry of changes, the committee ultimately advanced a measure that would raise the wage over time, topping out at all $11 an hour in 2021. While not far off from a minimum wage increase backed by the governor and approved by the state House of Representatives, the proposal omits a key provision to adjust the minimum wage annually in the future based on the rising cost of living. And the committee’s vote, in turn, reflected resistance in the Legislature’s upper chamber to some of the newly elected governor’s agenda.
Democrats campaigned last year on a promise to raise New Mexico’s minimum wage, which has remained at $7.50 an hour for a decade. How high it will go, exactly, is a question that quickly has become wrapped in a battle waged by the restaurant industry and could get caught in a tug-of-war between the state House and Senate. The issue has raised a series of other questions as well. Should there continue to be a lower minimum wage for workers who traditionally earn tips from customers, such as restaurant servers? Should employers be allowed to offer a lower minimum wage to younger workers, like high school students?
How high will the statewide minimum wage go? Or will it go at all? For many business owners, that is a key looming question during the 60-day legislative session. The minimum wage in New Mexico, unchanged since 2009, could see an upward adjustment from $7.50 an hour. Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, wants to double that to $15 an hour Jan.
After a little more than a week in his new job, New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary-designate Bill McCamley made a major, albeit temporary, rule change for federal employees seeking unemployment benefits because of the ongoing federal government shutdown. McCamley announced Wednesday that he is temporarily waiving a federally mandated work requirement to receive state unemployment benefits. “If you file for unemployment, by federal law, you’re supposed to show that you were looking for two jobs a week, and if you get a job and you turn it down, you lose unemployment,” McCamley told NM Political Report on Wednesday evening. “That’s really crappy for an air traffic controller who’s still working and not getting paid.”
Thousands of New Mexicans are either working without pay or have been furloughed. In a YouTube video, McCamley outlined some specifics of the rule change, which could last for 180 days if necessary.
Three incumbent Democratic state House members lost in their primaries Tuesday according to unofficial numbers. In a Santa Fe area district, Carl Trujillo was perhaps the most embattled incumbent. A lobbyist accused him of sexual harassment last month, though Trujillo denied the allegations. He now faces an investigation by the state Legislature in accordance with the state’s new sexual harassment rules. Trujillo was beat out by former Regional Coalition of LANL Communities Executive Director Andrea Romero.
Two of the three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor have over $1.5 million cash on hand for the final stretch before the primary election on June 5. Early voting has already started. State Sen. Joseph Cervantes has now loaned his own campaign over $2 million and raised only about $15,000 from others. He now has $1.65 million cash on hand. U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham raised over $410,000 and spent nearly $640,000 between April 3 and May 7.