All hardworking New Mexicans need an equal access to unemployment aid

By Alicia Saenz.
This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on August 15, 2020.

Immigrant families like mine work hard to provide for our families and contribute so much to our communities. I work in maintenance at a local hospital to support myself and my son. With the layoffs brought on by COVID-19, I, like many of us, lost my job and had to seek out unemployment benefits.

Even though I am eligible for unemployment, I was never able to successfully submit my unemployment insurance application because I couldn’t get help in Spanish.

There were no Spanish instructions on the online application to help me with an issue that I had. I called the Department of Workforce Solutions to ask for help, but all of my calls except one went unanswered. The person I got a hold of did not speak Spanish, and there was no interpreter available. He told me that they would call me back, but no one ever did.

People who qualify for unemployment should be able to submit an application. For the process to be fair for all, it should accommodate the different languages of our state’s communities.

My experience trying to apply for unemployment made me feel powerless, like I didn’t exist. I didn’t get the unemployment my family desperately needs and that I qualify for just because I don’t speak English.

Like so many other people in our state, I worry about surviving this pandemic and getting back on my feet. I worried constantly about how to pay the bills, take care of my son and buy basic necessities for weeks without my income or unemployment benefits.

I am really worried about my community. Many of my Spanish-speaking friends have had the same kinds of problems with their unemployment application and haven’t received any benefits. They can’t support their kids. They can’t afford basic necessities for their families. I worry about them constantly, and I try to support them in any way that I can.

Even though we are resilient, my community is hurting. We have been left behind to fend for ourselves during this pandemic. We deserve better.

I support the efforts of the Asian Family Center, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, Catholic Charities, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and many others that wrote a letter to DWS urging the department to provide the language support and other services our communities need to access unemployment insurance. I encourage the Department of Workforce Solutions to not delay taking action any longer.

Unemployment benefits are a lifeline during this time when work opportunities are scarce.

Now more than ever, everyone that qualifies for unemployment needs equal access to it so we can keep our families healthy and strong and come out the other end of this pandemic with the means to rebuild our communities.

Elisa Cibils, who interned at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, assisted the author with writing this in English.

Unemployment application process fails immigrants

By Huong Nguyen, New Mexico Asian Family Center
This article appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on September 7, 2020.

It is hard to believe the undue barriers Tram Tran and thousands of workers and out-of-work New Mexicans are going through to get the help they need and deserve during this difficult time.

Since April 2016, Tram has been a nail technician at Princess Spa and Nails. Her workplace shut down in March of this year. With the loss of income, Tram, her husband and their 18-month-old baby struggled to survive.

It was their first time experiencing unemployment. Tram went online to apply for unemployment benefits, but there were no applications or assistance available in Vietnamese. The process was unclear and misleading. The page crashed before she could submit, forcing her to start over again. Her account then got locked, and she didn’t understand what had happened. She called the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) hot line.

For weeks, it took her hours of waiting only to be randomly disconnected, or connected with representatives who said they could not address her problems. There were times when the line was transferred to a supervisor but then suddenly disconnected.

“I called DWS every single day, and I know the numbers and options by heart now,” said Tram, “It would have been OK if I just knew what was going on with my account.” She believed she put in the correct information, but the system kept saying her account wasn’t working and there were no explanations.

During this time, Tram and her family dipped into their savings to pay for groceries, diapers, mortgage, car payment and utility bills. She didn’t know how long it would last and what they could do to survive. “I am not getting much sleep, I have no idea what is next. So many people are mentally and emotionally checking out and I do not want to be one of those.”

By the time her benefits were approved, the system denied her three weeks of back pay. “It’s really unfair being denied because the system fails,” Tram said. When she called again, she was automatically sent to voicemail, and her problems went unaddressed. She was very disappointed and felt DWS didn’t listen to her. After months of waiting, Tram called and told us that she finally received her back pay on July 27.

At the New Mexico Asian Family Center (NMAFC), Tram’s story is only one among many. Since March, NMAFC, the only nonprofit in the state that provides culturally and linguistically tailored programs and services to the Pan-Asian community, started to hear many stories from community members who lost their jobs in the pandemic but couldn’t access the unemployment system. We heard these kinds of phrases over and over again: “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to feed my family? What should I do if the bank forecloses my house?” The current system is leaving behind thousands of workers like Tram, especially non-English speaking immigrants and refugees.

On May 1, after working for weeks with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and other partners, NMAFC sent in a letter with sign-ons from over 40 organizations and individuals to DWS Secretary Bill McCamley. Since then, we have barely seen any changes.

The unemployment system is built to provide a safety net for all working New Mexicans when they need it. NMAFC and organizations supporting workers’ rights in New Mexico call on DWS to fix problems and remove barriers to unemployment benefits so that all our working families can access benefits. Tram calls on DWS to provide applicants clear in-language instructions and applications, such as a video to help non-English speakers fill out their applications correctly so that no one has to experience the same situation as she.

Yazzie/Martinez plaintiffs present education plan to Legislative Finance Committee Friday

SANTA FE—On Friday, August 28, counsel for families, students, and school districts in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit will urge the state to develop and implement a comprehensive plan for overhauling New Mexico’s education system. Plaintiffs’ counsel will also share an assessment of deficiencies in the educational system. 

Detailed recommendations for how to reform the education system have been developed by hundreds of parents, families, tribal leaders, and educational experts and supported by research as detailed in the Transform Education NM platform for educational equity and a tribal remedy framework endorsed by New Mexico’s Pueblos, Tribes and Nations.

WHAT: 
LFC hearing on Yazzie and Martinez v. New Mexico plaintiffs plan to improve educational outcomes

WHO:
Counsel for Yazzie plaintiffs

  • Daniel Yohalem
  • Preston Sanchez, ACLU-NM
  • Melissa Candelaria, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
  • Alisa Diehl, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

Counsel for Martinez plaintiffs

  • Ernest Herrera, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund 

WHEN: 
Friday, August 28, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

REMOTE ACCESS:
Webcast live at www.nmlegis.gov

Court blocks attempt to end lawsuit on food and Medicaid assistance


LAS CRUCES—A federal district judge ruled today that the New Mexico Human Services Department must continue to comply with a court order requiring it to fix systemic problems with processing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid applications. 

Judge Kenneth John Gonzales wrote in his order, “New Mexicans, now more than ever, rely on the timely and accurate processing of SNAP and Medicaid applications to obtain much needed help.” 

“This pandemic continues to ravage families’ health and their ability to work,” said Teague Gonzalez, director of Public Benefits at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “It’s crucial that HSD comply with the law and remove unnecessary barriers to food and healthcare assistance.”

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. While some progress has been made, the court requires a case review to determine if HSD has addressed entrenched problems in administering food and medical assistance. 

In 2016, HSD whistleblowers testified that there was a statewide policy of falsifying information on emergency benefits applications so the agency could pass federal audits and deadlines. This illegal policy resulted in thousands of New Mexican families going without the food assistance they needed.

In 2018, a case review found ongoing errors in the processing of food and medical assistance cases.

In its order, the court found HSD’s request to end the court’s oversight of fixes to the problems “premature” and “counterproductive” and “threatens to set back the progress the parties have made to this point.” 

The judge ordered a case file review of Medicaid and SNAP applications to continue and that parties engage in good faith negotiations. 

“We were surprised that the state’s counsel thought it appropriate to file this motion right now when so many New Mexicans have even more need for help,” said the Center’s Gonzalez. “We will continue our efforts to ensure New Mexicans can access food and healthcare assistance in close coordination with the court appointed Special Master and HSD.”

Judge Kenneth Gonzales’s order can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrase-order-staying-termination-of-consent-decree-2020-08-21/

The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/

COVID-19 testing and treatment incident documentation

The current public health emergency has exposed barriers to healthcare that many immigrant communities encounter. Together we can inform our state officials and agencies about the problems and concerns that communities face when they seek COVID-19 testing and treatment.

Please help us document any problems and concerns to present to the Human Services Department, the Department of Health, and the Governor’s office. The information gathered will surface systemic issues that can inform our advocacy during the COVID-19 crisis. It can also help us identify systemic issues for work toward healthcare justice beyond the crisis: to make healthcare affordable and accessible for all of our communities. 

Personal information will remain confidential and will not be shared with government agencies.

Use this English form or this Spanish form to record problems, issues, barriers, and concerns that our immigrant community members face when seeking COVID-19 testing and treatment. You can also email or call the NM Dream Team and the NM Center on Law & Poverty to add to or in place of using the form. 

Personal information will remain confidential and will not be shared with government agencies.

In the form, please record:

  • any fees for testing or treatment
  • information requested in order to receive these services
  • lack of interpretation in your language
  • any denial of treatment
  • other issues or concerns 

Please contact us with any questions.

Felipe Rodriguez, Campaign Manager
NM Dream Team felipe@nmdreamteam.org (505) 210-2966

Fernanda Banda, Team Advocacy Lead
NM Dream Team ferbanda65@gmail.com

Verenice Peregrino Pompa, Attorney
NM Center on Law & Poverty verenice@nmpovertylaw.org (505) 225-1714

Alex Williams, Analyst
NM Center on Law & Poverty alex@nmpovertylaw.org (505) 226-3856

Molly Graver, Director of Healthcare
NM Center on Law & Poverty molly@nmpovertylaw.org

Facing this Emergency Together

Friends,

Protecting our families, loved ones and community is at the top of all our minds as we face this public health emergency together. The Covid-19 pandemic brings enormous challenges—practicing social distancing for our health and safety, while also responding to the economic consequences. As businesses close down, thousands of people are losing their jobs. More than 10,000 New Mexicans filed for unemployment benefits in just one week. 

This crisis exposes long-standing inequities for working families, and demands urgent action. It has made it abundantly clear that what we fight for—healthcare, housing, income and food support, childcare, workers’ rights, and educational opportunities—is fundamental to our communities.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty sent recommendations to our state leaders calling for a united and comprehensive response. We have been circulating “know your rights” information and critical updates about actions being taken at the national and state levels to bring down healthcare costs, expand income assistance, and prevent evictions and utility shut offs. Please join us in sharing this information widely with your networks and on social media, and stay tuned for alerts about ways to get involved as we work with you and our community partners on solutions.

We thank our Governor and policymakers for their leadership. We know there is much more to do. We vow to stand with you as we face this together.

Sincerely,
Sireesha Manne

Paid sick leave, halting evictions & benefits terminations necessary to mitigate COVID-19 impact on New Mexicans

Groups provide state leaders multiple strategies to protect New Mexico’s residents

ALBUQUERQUE—Advocacy groups from across the state urged New Mexico’s leaders to exercise their emergency powers and provide emergency assistance, access to healthcare, and other relief to stem the rising financial insecurity and income inequality caused by the coronavirus crises. 

The recommendations were sent to Governor Lujan Grisham, Attorney General Balderas, Chief Justice Nakamura, Speaker Egolf, Senator Papen, Mayor Keller, Mayor Webber, Mayor Hull, and Mayor Miyagishima. 

“Our state’s response must focus on and involve the communities already experiencing the impact of economic inequality,” states the letter sent by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Forward Together, Strong Families New Mexico, Lutheran Advocacy Ministry – New Mexico, New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, New Mexico Voices for Children, NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé – CAFé, Health Action New Mexico, United South Broadway, Fair Lending Center, Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), Catholic Charities – Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico Social Justice Equity Institute, McKinley Co. Assn. of Retired Educators, and multiple individuals.

Recommendations include:

Protect workers 

  • Enact emergency paid sick leave and pass local paid sick leave ordinances that guarantee paid sick leave for all workers. 
  • Eliminate the one-week delay in unemployment benefits. 

Ensure economic security 

  • Create a new emergency income assistance program. 
  • Stay wage garnishments and bank levies in the courts. 
  • Streamline access to Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and cash assistance for workers who have lost their jobs by allowing enrollment when filing for unemployment insurance. 
  • Extend eligibility, suspend work requirements and sanctions, and delay all public benefits recertification requirements. 

Healthcare for all 

  • Provide for immediate access to healthcare through Medicaid for all Medicaid applicants.  
  • Assure immigrant communities that screening and treatment for COVID-19 do not impact public charge determinations and will not have immigration consequences. 
  • Ensure hospitals and clinics are safe spaces regardless of immigration status.  
  • Require employers maintain health insurance benefits regardless of reduction of work hours resulting from the pandemic. 
  • Call for a federal amendment to the Medicaid statutes to add a state option extending coverage to the uninsured for all medical services in connection with COVID-19. 

Moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, towing, and utility shut offs 

  • Stay all court eviction and foreclosure proceedings statewide to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent an increase in homelessness in New Mexico.   
  • Create a rent relief fund to help impacted families. 
  • Stop all utility shut offs. 
  • Place a moratorium on towing vehicles. 

Include all New Mexicans in the response to this crisis 

  • Protect New Mexicans without homes by providing emergency resources to shelters and on-location medical care.
  • Local governments should affirm their institutional commitment to all immigrant community members who may be targets of xenophobic behavior. 
  • Reduce the number of people in custody and release nonviolent defendants and people serving sentences for nonviolent offenses. 

The groups commend government officials and state leaders for the expedient initial steps already taken to mitigate the harm New Mexicans are facing. However, the groups maintain that much remains to be done without delay to protect the wellbeing of all New Mexico’s families.  

The full recommendations can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/strategies-to-mitigate-covid-19-impact-on-nm-2020-03-18/

Report shows gaps in New Mexico’s early childhood agenda

ALBUQUERQUE—According to a new report, more investment in home visiting, child care assistance, cash assistance, and minimum wage enforcement would significantly improve New Mexico families’ stability and economic outlook. The report, “New Mexico’s Infant Toddler Agenda,” was authored by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

“Every child should have the opportunity to succeed in life, yet nearly a third of New Mexico’s 70,000 infants and toddlers live in poverty. Across the board, state investments are too low in programs that address economic barriers and support opportunities for families with young children,” said Sovereign Hager, legal director at NMCLP. “Every family should have safe and affordable child care, sound parental support, and resources to pay for necessities. But there are huge gaps between what programs work for families and what our state funds.” 

Children’s growth and development are shaped by early life experiences. Good health, empowered families, and positive early learning environments foster children’s physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development. Culturally and linguistically appropriate programs and policies that are developed in collaboration with local communities are also essential to their success. 

Home visiting empowers parents 

In New Mexico, home visiting services provide support, coaching, and resources for parents from trained professionals during pregnancy and in children’s earliest years. Home visiting improves children’s mental and physical health, supports school readiness, and helps keep children and families safe. 

However, the report notes the lack of home visiting programs in New Mexico and that few programs are culturally and linguistically relevant to the state’s diverse communities. In New Mexico, an estimated 157,600 children—half of whom are infants and toddlers—were eligible for home visiting programs in 2017 but only approximately 5,000 slots were available in 2018. 

The report recommends that New Mexico fully leverage Medicaid dollars for home visiting and expand its current pilot program to include all Medicaid-eligible families.

Child care assistance provides high-quality child care and early education opportunities

The state’s Child Care Assistance Program makes it possible for low-income parents to work or go to school while providing their children with a safe place to learn and grow. The report notes that when families have access to child care assistance, they are better able to access high quality child care and have more resources for basic needs. They also have far fewer child care related work disruptions.

Unfortunately, even after increases to the program’s budget this year, the vast majority of families in New Mexico face high out of pocket costs even when they get assistance. Eighty one percent of families who receive child care assistance in New Mexico had to pay a share of costs in 2017 compared to the national rate of 62%.

Data shows that too many families simply cannot afford to participate in the program. Enrollment falls for families earning between 25% and 50% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines—when New Mexico starts imposing unaffordable co-payments.

The report recommends New Mexico eliminate co-payments for families living below 100% FPG and cap out of pocket costs at affordable levels for other families.

Families also face a steep “cliff effect” when their incomes exceed the eligibility threshold for the program. In many cases, this leaves families much worse off than they were before an increase in wages.

In New Mexico, families can earn a maximum of 250% of the FPG (equivalent to $53,325 for a family of three in FY 2019) before becoming ineligible for assistance. The report recommends tiered eligibility policies to smooth the cliff effect by gradually reducing assistance as income rises.

Increasing and enforcing the minimum wage supports economically stable families 

New Mexico’s minimum wage increase went into effect in January 2020. The report notes that an estimated 100,600 children will be helped by their parents’ increased wages.

However, workers can’t benefit from a minimum wage increase if the law isn’t enforced. Too many New Mexico workers are paid less than the minimum wage because employers violate the law. The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions has a statutory obligation to enforce the law, but DWS is underfunded and overwhelmed by a backlog of over 1,800 wage complaints. One in five workers has been waiting for their case to be investigated or to be paid wages owed for over a year and a half. Some have been waiting as long as eight years. 

The report recommends the state strategically and robustly enforce the law to maximize benefits to workers and their families.

Improving cash assistance to support economically stable families

Increased income during early childhood is associated with improved health, better school performance, and even increased earnings later in a child’s life. Even a small amount of additional income can be a stabilizing force, allowing parents to purchase diapers, groceries, or other household necessities. 

Although many families with low incomes could benefit from cash assistance, which provides a temporary monthly benefit and work supports for parents, only a small percent in New Mexico qualify for help because of limited eligibility, ineffective work requirements, and time limits for children. 

The assistance itself is minimal and does not provide enough for families to live on while seeking employment. 

The report recommends New Mexico improve its cash assistance program by offering flexibility, exemptions from work requirements, and allowing children to receive benefits when parents become ineligible or reach time limits.

“Strong investments in programs that impact early childhood are proven to increase well being and economic opportunity for families, but too many of New Mexico’s families with infants and toddlers aren’t able to access programs that would help them the most,” said Hager. “Our state government has an obligation to fix this and must prioritize an agenda that focuses on opportunity for families with young children. This means adequate resources towards programs and services for families with young children, investment in culturally and linguistically relevant programming, and work across agencies to streamline and integrate eligibility and enrollment processes.”

“New Mexico’s Infant Toddler Agenda” can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/CLASP_NewMexico_infants_brochure3.pdf

5 things you should know about the new public charge rule

By Teague González, director of Public Benefits

Changes to the “Public Charge” rule go into effect today. Some of the changes include allowing the government to deny permanent residency (green cards) and visa renewals to certain lawfully present immigrants who participate in basic need programs like Medicaid, SNAP food assistance, and housing assistance.

The Trump administration is counting on fear to harm immigrant families and turn lifesaving programs against families. But the new public charge rule change applies to very few immigrants. Get all the facts and always talk to someone to make the best choices for your family.

Here are 5 important things you need to know about public charge:

Number 1: The test does not apply to people who are already legal permanent residents — as long as they don’t leave the US for 6 consecutive months. 
Number 2: The rule does not apply to people who want to adjust from legal permanent resident to citizens. 
Number 3: It never applies to US citizen children. A US citizen child’s use of benefits is never counted against their parent no matter the parent’s immigration status. Please do not disenroll or cancel your US citizen children from Medicaid or Food Stamps without talking to someone first. 
Number 4: There are important exceptions to the public charge rule, for example, pregnant women may receive Medicaid during their pregnancies and up to 60 days after delivery and this will not be counted against them when they try to become legal permanent residents. The same goes for Medicaid use by children under 21 years of age who want to become legal permanent residents. 
Many categories of immigrants are exempt from the rule like T and U Visa holders, as are VAWA beneficiaries, and many other statuses. 
Number 5: Many government benefits are not included in the public charge rule like school breakfast and lunch, WIC, CHIP, unemployment benefits and many more. 

This is why it is very important that you talk with someone about the rule change before you make any decisions about canceling your benefits or your children’s benefits. 

Please call 505-255-2840 with any questions. Watch the video in English and Spanish. Get the handout in English or Spanish.

Court hearing Thursday on HSD compliance with orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance

LAS CRUCES—On Thursday at 10:00 a.m., in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, Judge Kenneth Gonzales will hear an update on the New Mexico Human Services Department’s compliance with multiple court orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance for eligible families.

In September 2016, Judge Gonzales held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families. The court appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. In April 2018, the judge set a series of deadlines for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms.

In July of 2019, the court approved a jointly-developed corrective action plan to address systemic barriers to food and medical assistance. Thursday’s status conference will include updates from both parties and the Special Master on the status of HSD’s implementation of the plan.

WHAT:

U.S District Court status conference on HSD compliance with court orders in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase, No. 88-385 KG/CG    

WHEN:

Thursday, November 21, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

WHERE:

United States Courthouse, 4th Floor, 420 Mimbres Courtroom (North Tower), 100 N. Church Street, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001

WHO:

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorneys,Court Appointed Special Master Lawrence M. Parker, HSD Secretary and Attorneys

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty report on it’s case review can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/nmclp-report-on-hsd-case-review-2019-02-25-redacted/

The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/