On Wednesday, it was revealed that embattled Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS) overpaid $250 million in unemployment benefits during the recent viral outbreak due to “fraudulent claims and human error,” which has left Democrat and Republican lawmakers furious.
A recent report from the Legislative Finance Committee report on the matter, “the reasons for the overpayments included insufficient staffing at the state Department of Workforce Solutions and a backlog of investigations into potentially fraudulent claims.”
According to the Albuquerque Journal, “New Mexico’s unemployment fund was largely depleted last year by the explosion of pandemic-related jobless claims, prompting the state to borrow $278 million from the federal government to continue paying benefits to unemployed workers.”
Of the projected $250 million in overpayments, about $133 million were due to potentially fraudulent claims, the report notes.
“The sudden influx of calls and claims hit very quickly,” said acting NMDWS secretary Ricky Serna, who took over the agency’s reins after previous Secretary Bill McCamley stepped down.
Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) blamed the Governor and her cabinet for the problems, telling KOB 4, “Ultimately, this falls in the governor’s office, and the executive, and this went on for far too long, and now legislators are being presented with somehow coming up with a solution of fixing a problem that should have never started and certainly should have never grown to the rate it is presented today.”
Serna acknowledged that it would be very difficult to recoup the millions of dollars expended by the Department, but some overpayments may be able to be recovered due to adjustments with those still receiving benefits (around 90,000 New Mexicans).
Benefits Attorney Alicia Clark who has heard from around 100 out of work New Mexicans on the issue, “People are getting their benefits garnished before they’ve had a chance to appeal their determination,” said Clark, who estimated she’s heard from more than 100 out-of-work New Mexicans on the issue.
“It’s not the people’s fault they got overpaid – it’s the department’s,” she said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham line-item vetoed an earmarked $600 million on federal funds to renew the depleted unemployment fund appropriated by the Legislature. According to the Governor’s spokeswoman, Nora Sackett, “at the time that the action was necessary due to uncertainty over the federal guidelines for spending the dollars.”