NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Data suggests more than 100,000 New Mexicans lost their jobs during the pandemic. KRQE News 13 investigative reporter Gabrielle Burkhart took a closer look at the state’s unemployment crisis throughout the pandemic and learned how New Mexico’s workforce fares against the rest of the country. As more businesses reopen, New Mexico still has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the U.S.

“My space is right here in the wind tunnel,” said Joseph Orga. Orga is an indoor skydiving flight instructor at Urban Air Adventure Park in northeast Albuquerque.

Pre-pandemic, he said there was easily one word to describe his workplace: fun. “It’s a fun environment. It’s fun to go to work,” said Orga. “Seeing people the first time they fly and the smile, that’s the coolest part.”

In March of 2020 when COVID-19 hit the state, Orga was among the first waves of New Mexicans to get laid off. His workplace was shut down. March 2021 marked more than a year that Urban Air has been completely closed down per the state’s public health order.

March 2021 marked more than a year Urban Air Adventure Park stayed closed due to Public Health Order

Orga said this past year has given him a whole new perspective on not only what it’s like to lose his job in a pandemic but to lose his home in the process. “I was actually just behind a gas station trying to stay warm from the wind and he called me,” said Orga. He teared up when he recalled a phone call he received from his boss.

Brian Garcia, co-owner of Urban Air, called Orga to find out where he should send his W-2. Orga had no home address to give him. That’s when Garcia realized one of his best workers had become homeless. “You don’t wanna, you don’t tell people,” said Orga. “You feel embarrassed at first, but then that’s how it is, you know. He said, ‘I’m coming to get you.'”

Orga has been living with his former boss for the past couple of months. “It hurts to see them struggling,” said Garcia.

Garcia said roughly 25% of his former staff left the state to find work. Others, including Orga, have struggled with the unemployment process. “We had 83 employees here,” Garcia said. “Whenever the pandemic started, we laid off 81.” When asked how many employees he has now, Garcia responded, “We have one. And that’s our bookkeeper to keep track of how much money we’re losing.”

Currently, there are more than 78,000 New Mexicans on unemployment. KRQE News 13 wanted to know how New Mexico fared overall, compared to other states.

“We lost probably double the number of jobs that we lost in the great recession, so it’s a much deeper hole that we’re in,” explained Michael, ‘Mo’ O’Donnell, Acting Director for the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research.

O’Donnell also says New Mexico has bounced back relatively slower compared to other states. In January of 2020, the state was seeing some job growth, but New Mexico had one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, around 5%. When the pandemic hit and businesses shut down last year, jobless claims skyrocketed across the country.

KRQE News 13 data reporter Curtis Segarra used Bureau of Labor statistics to put New Mexico’s unemployment crisis into perspective. “By April of 2020, jobless claims jumped across the U.S. and unemployment claims skyrocketed in some states,” Segarra explained. “But New Mexico fared better than many of those states. By July, we had one of our highest rates of unemployment at 12.5%, and we were back near the bottom of the list.”

Across the US, unemployment rose drastically during the pandemic. Data from BLS.

BLS data shows at the peak of the pandemic in 2020, New Mexico didn’t lose as many jobs as a lot of other states did. However, as businesses across the country are reopening, New Mexico once again has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, at 8.3%. Faring slightly worse are New York and Hawaii.

One of the hardest-hit sectors in the pandemic was leisure and hospitality. The industry is down roughly 30,000 jobs statewide from the year before. “We’re looking at basically a $4.3 billion economic injury in 2020,” explained Cody Johnson, Public Information Officer for New Mexico’s Tourism Department. Johnson said that takes into account an estimated $3.15 billion lost in visitor spending, plus the cost of unemployment, and lost tax revenue.

(Graphic above courtesy of New Mexico Tourism Department)

“For hospitality and tourism, it’s relatively slow to see those job numbers come back until we do legitimately get past this pandemic,” said Johnson. “It’s also kind of an indication of why it’s so important to invest in recovery efforts.”

He said there is work taking place on the back-end to support business’ efforts and hire back workers. “Our recovery will depend on how much we’re able to invest in tourism now and in the coming years,” said Johnson.

While Johnson and O’Donnell agree that COVID-19 vaccines and businesses reopening will play a role in New Mexico’s economic recovery, they also agree people’s behaviors will too. “I think that this time things are a little bit different,” said O’Donnell, referring to the long economic recovery after 2008.

“People have gotten used to doing things in a new way,” O’Donnell explained. “I mean we’re talking right now on Zoom rather than in person, people are shopping online as opposed to going to the store. There’s no guarantee that people are going to go back to the way that things were exactly, and there’s no timetable for how long that recovery is going to take.”

While he doesn’t quite expect a decade-long recovery, like after the 2008 recession, O’Donnell said it could take years. However, New Mexico may have a leg up in some ways. “Our research shows that when people start to reengage with travel, they’re gonna look for outdoor experiences, find space,” Johnson said. “And we got plenty of that in New Mexico.”

For people like Garcia, who’s been watching other Urban Air franchises reopen across the country, including one of his own in Colorado, “It’s just been an emotional roller coaster,” he said.

“I mean we want to be open like all these other businesses that are able to at least mitigate some of the losses that you know, are building up.” After a year of forced closure, monthly rent, utility, and insurance bills, Garcia said his business had incurred close to $1 million in debt.

Urban Air Adventure Park in Albuquerque

Garcia said he’s discouraged by his empty 35,000 square foot facility and New Mexico’s slow re-opening process. “It just shows that we’re falling behind,” he said.

Orga said he has family out-of-state and could move to find work elsewhere. But, he said the main thing keeping him in New Mexico is the hope that he’ll get to return to his dream job.

“It’s been the first time in my life I loved to go to work, and I stay after,” he said. Orga said he’s never missed a job so much in his life. “I’d pay to go back to work if I could,” he added.

Under the new reopening criteria announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday, Urban Air will be allowed to reopen at 25% indoor capacity when Bernalillo County turns green on Friday. Garcia said he hopes to rehire about 40 employees and has plans to reopen next Friday, May 8.

Urban Air Adventure Park joined a federal lawsuit along with other businesses like Cliff’s Amusement park and Hinkle Family Fun Center, challenging the state’s authority to close down businesses. There has not been a ruling yet.