Busy signal

by Ike Swetlitz and Ed Williams | March 11, 2021
7 min read
Guillermo Miera in the foyer of his apartment complex in Albuquerque. Scores of people told Searchlight they waited for weeks or months for their benefits or never received any aid at all. Photograph by Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been made available to the Sun by our content-sharing partner, Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.

Last March, Teresa Espindola, a 46-year-old painter in Tijeras, was having problems getting her unemployment payments. She was locked out of New Mexico’s online system and couldn’t get anyone on the phone to help her. After months of fruitless phone calls, she emailed a state employee named Bill. 

“I didn’t know who he was,” Espindola said. All she knew was that he worked for the department she was having trouble with. 

In fact, her correspondent was Bill McCamley, the secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions, the state agency that administers unemployment benefits. As the department floundered under a wave of out-of-work New Mexicans, he started helping people resolve their issues himself. Soon after his email exchange with Espindola, another employee fixed her problem—caused by a typo in the computer system.

McCamley’s intervention demonstrates just how much the pandemic has strained the state’s unemployment system. Scores have applied for unemployment benefits but didn’t see the cash for weeks or months, if ever.

Unable to reach anyone on the state’s telephone hotline, they’ve been left in financial turmoil, sometimes facing hunger or eviction without the public assistance they’d been promised. Sometimes their accounts are locked because of a simple spelling error or an incorrect birthday.

In many cases, applicants have no idea why the payments aren’t coming through. Meanwhile, the department reports rising hostility towards employees.

Since the fall, McCamley said, more than 100,000 people have been receiving benefits at any given time—more than 10 times the number at the pandemic’s start—and his department has distributed over $3 billion in funds, the equivalent of about 40 percent of the current state budget. 

But even if the department is able to help the vast majority of people with their issues, that can still leave thousands out in the cold.

Teresa Espindola at her home in Tijeras. DWS Secretary Bill McCamley personally intervened to help solve the cause of her missing unexmployment payments: a typo in the computer system. “We’re all hands on deck here, and that includes me,” McCamley says. Photograph by Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

“These are very serious, longstanding and widespread problems,” said Felipe Guevara, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “I empathize with DWS. They have a very difficult job right now, and they’ve been historically underfunded. But the way these unemployment programs have been rolled out over the past year has resulted in a lot of people suffering unnecessarily.”

More than 200 people contacted Searchlight with problems they’ve had with their unemployment applications. Reporters spoke with more than a dozen, many of whom described the devastating effects of the holdups. Some applicants have waited nearly a year to receive payment. Others have described going hungry, even eating from the trash to survive. Still others have lost their homes, or come close, as they waited for their issues to be fixed by the state. 

“Whenever there are people struggling and hurting, we’re not doing well enough,” McCamley said.

Tammy Aragon, a financial worker in Albuquerque, got locked out of her account more than two months ago. She has resorted to selling her personal belongings to pay her bills, and donating plasma twice a week for gas money. Guillermo Miera, who used to work at a laundromat and do landscaping in Albuquerque, got a letter from the DWS in August stating that he should get $169 a week but hasn’t seen any of that money. He lost his car and his internet was cut off. It took him months to reach anyone on the phone at the unemployment office. 

“Getting through to them is like trying to see Jesus in person,” Miera said. And when he did, they were no help.

Nesbly Saenz, a mother of three and professional caregiver in Las Cruces, caught COVID-19 from a coworker in December. She qualified for a weekly payment of $300, but an unknown error put a hold on her application before she received any money. 

“I can’t even describe the anxiety,” she said. “I was homeless as a child. I’ll die before I let my kids go through that.”

After trying to reach the DWS call center for over a month, she gave up. Her finances completely drained, she decided she had no choice but to return to work even though she was still suffering from debilitating headaches and tremors.

“Having COVID was terrible,” she said. “But the stress of having my unemployment claim on hold while my bills were piling up and rent was coming due? That was even worse. I still get the shakes just thinking about it.” 

At times, frustration over these problems has boiled over into aggression in New Mexico and elsewhere. 

“We’ve had death threats,” McCamley said. “We’ve had a car blown up in one of our parking lots. We’ve had windows broken.”

An unknown person set a state vehicle on fire at the Las Cruces DWS office just after Thanksgiving, according to reports from the city’s fire department and the state police. Photographs show a white Nissan Altima with a broken windshield, a dangling grille, and a hole blasted in the middle of a crumpled hood. Investigators found a burnt rag and pieces of a broken beer bottle. “It was possible an improvised incendiary device was utilized to start the fire,” a state police report said.

Alexa Tapia, who coordinates the National Employment Law Project’s work on unemployment programs, said that it’s become “extremely commonplace” for unemployment-office workers to fear for their safety. She used to work as the special assistant to the secretary of the Kansas Department of Labor up until December, and she said that her agency staff was also the target of death threats. 

“Many people are still struggling to receive benefits, and they’re getting understandably desperate,” Tapia said. 


The main way for a New Mexican to get their issues with benefits resolved is to contact the state’s unemployment call center. But it’s difficult to get through to anyone. Since the beginning of March, the department has received 18 million calls, and representatives were only able to answer about 1.2 million of them, or 6.6 percent, according to data provided by the DWS.

McCamley told Searchlight that the department doesn’t have enough staff to pick up the phone whenever someone calls. It has been constantly hiring and training new employees since the beginning of the pandemic, raising the number of call-center agents from 84 to 176, with more coming. It’s hired contractors and brought in volunteers from other state agencies to help resolve issues, and of course McCamley himself.

“We’re all hands on deck here, that includes me,” McCamley said. “There’s no way I’ve helped less than 10,000 people. There’s no way.”

But even with the increase in staffing, the department still has to leave millions of calls unanswered. Sometimes people can leave their number and ask for a callback later that day, but McCamley explained that the department only accepts a limited number of these requests. It’s a balancing act, he said: If representatives spend more time calling people back, they have less time to pick up the phone when people call in the first place. 

The difficulties are not unique to New Mexico. In fact, federal Department of Labor data shows New Mexico in line with the national average for punctually sending regular unemployment-insurance payments throughout the pandemic. 

Tapia, from the National Employment Law Project, pointed out that state unemployment agencies around the country were underfunded, understaffed, and overburdened even before the pandemic. That’s led to delays in getting aid to people throughout the country. 

“There’s been no state agency that we’re able to point to that has handled this swimmingly,” Tapia said.

And a lot has depended on the federal government, which has been a source of frustration for state administrators like McCamley. Congress kept creating new programs with different rules, and federal and state administrative agencies had to hammer out the specifics each time. That threw unemployed people into a state of confusion and forced agencies like McCamley’s, which are accustomed to having months to update their procedures, to try and adapt.

“Every time Congress basically changes the game on us, and changes the situation for the claimants, they call us,” McCamley said. “And that has been hugely frustrating.”

Congress extended unemployment benefits this week, and DWS said in a press release there would be no interruption this time.

Ike Swetlitz has traveled the world to hold policymakers, businesses and scientists accountable. At Searchlight, he is covering health and social issues. He most recently reported for STAT, the national health and medical science publication, in both Boston and Washington, D.C., where he focused on drug pricing, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. He graduated from Yale with a degree in physics and is based in Albuquerque.
Ed Williams won the News Leader Association’s Frank A. Blethen Award for local accountability for his 2019 stories about abuses in the foster care system. He also was an NLA award finalist in 2020 for a story about the abusive discipline of students with disabilities. Ed spent seven years in public radio before joining Searchlight, where he covers foster care, education and other issues. He has been a reporter in both the United States and Latin America, working for print, digital and radio outlets. Williams was a 2016 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellow and earned a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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