On Friday, December 16, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions announced that the state’s unemployment rate has been reported as 4.1%. According to a news release from Governor Lujan Grisham’s office, this is the lowest rate New Mexico has reported since June 2008. In January 2022, New Mexico’s unemployment rate was at 5.9%.
The month of September had a rate of 4.2% which was the lowest rate at the time for 2022. Nationally, the unemployment rate in November was 3.7%
The news release states in part:
“Our sustained investments in economic growth and workforce development have once again brought New Mexico’s unemployment rate to a 14-year low. … As employment continues to increase and businesses continue to expand, New Mexico is now home to more business establishments than prior to the pandemic. And not only are we creating new jobs, but with record college enrollment and free tuition, we are supporting growing businesses by training New Mexicans for the skilled workforce of the future.”
New Mexico saw record highs in unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, 2020 the state had a high of 9.8% when people were out of work because of closure restrictions. Since the 2020 high, New Mexico has seen a steady drop in the unemployment rate.
New Mexico had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, but by the fall of 2022, the rate began to drop. According to the US Department of Labor, as of December, New Mexico tied with West Virginia and California and 9 states and the District of Columbia have higher rates of unemployment.
Reilly White, an associate professor with the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management, said that New Mexico is now nearly at full employment. White said this:
“People who are looking for work are generally able to find jobs. That’s a good sign (for) the New Mexico economy. … As we look ahead, though, there are some doldrums on the horizon for the economy. … Likely the consequences will be higher unemployment levels a year from now.”
According to a New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, total nonfarm payroll grew by 24,500 jobs year over year, which is nearly 3% increase. The private sector saw the highest gains in that arena, up 21,300 jobs. The public sector was up 3,200 jobs, according to the Department of Workforce Solution Report.
The link to quoted news source material is here:
COVID PANDEMIC HAS IMPACTED STATE AGENCIES
Although the private sector is making great strides when it come to making significant progress with reducing unemployment, State Agencies are struggling to fill fully funded but vacant positions. According to State Personnel Office as of September, Statewide, there is a 24.3% average vacancy rate for rank-and-file positions across state government.
Not surprising, the pandemic has hit hardest the state agencies in health care that have been dealing directly with the pandemic The Department of Health’s Epidemiology and Response Division reports that it has nearly as many empty positions as it does employees. Due to a mix of fatigue, stress, pay levels that lag behind the private sector and other factors, the division had 165 employees and 151 unfilled positions as December 16 , which is a staggering 48% vacancy rate. The state has also lost two chief epidemiologists since 2020, forcing other agency officials to step in and do the work.
Department of Health (DOH) acting Secretary David Scrase told a legislative committee that many DOH employees were forced to frequently work weekends and holidays during the pandemic. He said the agency conducted a departmentwide survey that showed upwards of 70% of employees had experienced anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scrase said the Department of Health currently has a 30% vacancy rate and is understaffed in many key positions, including computer technicians and human resources specialists. Scraase said the department is working to address the situation. He said the department is using advertising and rapid-hire events to target hard-to-fill positions. It’s also seeking an additional $14 million from the Legislature to recruit and retain new workers. Scrase said current pay rates for some positions are equivalent to fast-food restaurants, which is unacceptable. Scrase said this:
“Our top priority is really to rebuild our workforce. … There’s a widespread migration out of public epidemiology into the private sector.”
Scrase said employees in the Epidemiology and Response Division are struggling to keep the division running, even as state hospitals report a surge of young patients with different viruses, including the Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV. The Department of Health recently announced it would stop providing weekly COVID-19 hospitalization, mortality and geographic trend reports on a weekly basis, and instead would issue such reports once every two weeks.
OTHER AGENCY VACANCY RATES IDENTFIED
Full time employee (FTE) vacancy rates vary across New Mexico state agencies and in fact have but have been very high in some departments. Following are the current FTE vacancy rates provided in major state departments:
Department of Health: 30%
Environment Department: 21.7%
Children, Youth and Families Department: 24%
Human Services Department: 15%
Taxation and Revenue Department: 22%
Early Childhood Education and Care Department: 18%
State legislators are raising major concerns over the vacancy rates across state government. Gallup area Demcrat State Senator George Muñoz, the vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee said the state has a cumbersome state hiring process with an average of 72 days to fill open positions and workforce changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have combined to leave some state agencies scrambling to hire and retain employees. Munoz this about the vacancy rate:
“That is the no. 1 issue affecting state government right now. … We’ve got to be competitive in our market [and pay more]. … I don’t know any attorney who wants to work for $60,000 (a year).”
Governor spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Governor Lujan Grisham will be asking for during the upcoming 60-day legislative session additional wage increases to help recruit and retain more state employees. Sackett said this:
“The governor fully recognizes that current state employee vacancy rates are not acceptable, and the administration is committed to ensuring that both employees and constituents have the staffing support they need.”
DISSATISFACTION WITH PAY
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, is the chair of the Legislative Finance Committee. She said some lawmakers are not convinced that pay raises alone will be enough to solve the state’s vacancy rate issues. Lundstrom said some state agencies have not been able to fully utilize funding approved in previous years that was targeted at hard-to-fill positions, such as social workers. Lundstrom said this:
“What’s disconcerting is to have Cabinet secretaries ask for more money for positions when they already have a high funded vacancy rate.”
Looking ahead, Lundstrom said she and other legislators plan on seeking a new study on the state’s salary structure for rank-and-file workers. Such a study has not been conducted for about 20 years and if funding for it is approved during the upcoming session, it could provide lawmakers and state officials with more information about how to better align pay rates and job positions.
RESISTING ORDERS TO RETURN TO WORK
The struggle to reduce vacancy rates across state government and arguments for more funding for pay increases come at a time that the Lujan Grisham Administration is also struggling to deal with issue of state employees working remotely from home because of the pandemic. The remote work policy was negotiated by labor union leaders and Lujan Grisham administration in June 2021. It allows state workers to do their jobs remotely from home occasionally or entirely, depending on their duties.
On November 30, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration said it was rescinding a telework policy negotiated during the COVID-19 pandemic. State workers are now being sent emails from the State Personnel Office ordering them to return to in-person work starting January 3.
After being notified of the decision to rescind the policy, local leaders of the Communications Workers of America union cited frustration about what they described as a lack of communication from the executive branch. They said there’s no reason to force all state workers who have been doing their jobs remotely to return to the office. State employees said the remote work policy has allowed workers to act as caregivers and minimize commuting expenses, while still fulfilling their job duties.
Megan Green, executive vice president of CWA’s local chapter who works for the state Environment Department, said this:
“Our concern is this is going to degrade state government and it seems unnecessary.”
Green also said chronic challenges across many state agencies with recruitment and retention, with only about 61% of new hires lasting their first year during the 2022 budget year, could be exacerbated by the decision to scrap the telework policy.
New Mexico’s remote work policy for state government employees came under scrutiny after a recent legislative report showed the state is paying up to $18 million for unoccupied office space. The office space is primarily in Santa Fe. In addition, some lawmakers have expressed concern about customer service issues, including constituent phone calls to some state agencies going unanswered.
The link to quoted news source material is here:
The reaction to the return to work order has been very negative by union officials. Alan Tway, the secretary of the CWA Local 7076 union, said many employees are angry and questioned whether the Lujan Grisham administration has the authority to unilaterally rescind the telework policy. Tway said this:
“Even with three years of multi-billion dollar new revenues, the governor offers no recognition that fewer and fewer employees have been carrying more and more of the workload.”
Union leaders are predicting that state government vacancy rate could rise to 30%, or higher, if the remote work option is rescinded.
The Lujan Grisham administration insists it is trying to maintain a productive and flexible workforce while also addressing the needs of state residents. Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham is committed to making state government a “rewarding workplace,” citing recent pay increases for state workers and competitive benefits packages.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
It is very difficult to reconcile or fully understand that New Mexico’s unemployment rate is dropping to pre pandemic levels in the private sector while at the same time state agency’s are struggling to fill positions with some agency’s reaching crisis levels.
One thing that is for certain is that full time state government employees, with union assistance, who resist returning to work because they want to work from home plays into the stereo typical reputation that government employees have a sense of entitlement.
It appears the Lew Wallace curse is at play to some extent:
“All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.”