ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Last week, KRQE News 13 told you about the state’s Workforce Solutions Department overpaying benefits during the COVID crisis of about $250 million. Now, the department has a new problem – people suing the department saying they weren’t given the chance to apply for federal benefits. This lawsuit lists five New Mexicans but the attorney believes there are many more who they think are also eligible for federal assistance.
Alicia Clark with New Mexico Legal Aid said her clients have faced hardships during the pandemic. “If it hadn’t been for the eviction moratorium, a lot of our folks would be homeless,” said Clark. Her clients’ employment backgrounds vary from call center workers to barbers. Clark said they were all unable to work during the pandemic but they never got the federal unemployment benefits she said they were entitled to.
“It’s a type of unemployment insurance for those who do not qualify for standard state-funded unemployment insurance and are out of work due to one of several specific causes related to the pandemic,” said Clark. And now, they’re suing the Department of Workforce Solutions and the acting secretary. She said the department did not allow her clients to apply for federal unemployment benefits. Clark blames it on the way Workforce Solutions rolled out the program.
“We’re filing this suit essentially after contacting the department on behalf of various clients and saying ‘hey, can we apply? Can you process their applications?’ and being told ‘no, we don’t think they’re eligible,'” said Clark. This lawsuit follows a bombshell report last week from the Legislative Finance Committee, which estimates the Department overpaid in unemployment benefits by $250 million.
Clark hopes if they’re successful with this case, others in similar situations will be able to get additional help from the feds. “We don’t really know that it was a deliberate failure on the Department’s fault,” said Clark. “It really appears the department misunderstands the federal law, at least the way we read it.”
Part of the relief efforts Clark and her clients are seeking is for the Department to declare that they violated the law for denying them access to benefits they believe have a legitimate claim. The Department of Workforce Solutions office declined an interview, saying they’re unable to comment on pending litigation.