NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – While the state is touting its lowest unemployment numbers in decades, there’s another side of the story that isn’t often talked about.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the state’s unemployment rate is at just 3.5% but the state still has the third lowest labor force participation rate in the country, following West Virginia and Mississippi. 

Sarita Nair, the Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Workforce Solutions explained, “Basically how many people I like to think in the game are those folks are either working or looking for work opposed to those who are on the bench. Those are the folks who are doing neither of those.”

Reilly White is an Associate Professor of Finance at UNM. He explains why New Mexico’s labor participation rate of 56% is 7 points lower than the national average. “When there are fewer opportunities for development, fewer people work, and people are forced to make a choice. If you’re a working parent and you have difficulty finding childcare or going back to work following another child being born, it becomes a very difficult situation for a lot of New Mexicans.”

That only tells part of the story. New Mexico has higher disability rates than other states, with the number of people applying for disability benefits doubling over the past 20 years. White continued, “Some of that is due to the health availability of certain health care opportunities in the state. It is due to certain economic characteristics of our state.” 

In a recent Workforce Solutions report on the issue, the state acknowledges a correlation between low labor force participation in states with high poverty rates, low education levels, and lower waged jobs. But there are still New Mexicans that businesses are hoping will join the workforce. “We have fewer people still employed in leisure and hospitality. Those are restaurants, those are hotels, those are all of those service sector work that we’re finding companies struggling to find workers in those categories,” said White. 

The labor force is considered anyone 16 years old and up. New Mexico does have a slightly higher percentage of elderly population than most other states so that also accounts for some of the state’s low ranking. The labor force does not include inmates or residents of nursing homes.

New Mexico has 24 Workforce Connection Centers where people can get help looking for a job.