ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico already was among the most poverty-stricken states in the U.S. before oil prices crashed and the coronavirus outbreak derailed efforts to diversify the economy. Now, more than 130,000 have lost their jobs or had their hours cut, putting more pressure on families and food banks that have served as the state’s safety net.
A stream of volunteers helps daily to sort, label and pack tons of food inside a giant warehouse in Albuquerque for distribution throughout the region as more people seek assistance.
Roadrunner Food Bank has sent out more than 7.3 million pounds of canned food, dry goods, fruits and vegetables over the last two months, marking a 20% increase over the same period last year.
Fresh faces in the line at the food pantries range from professionals who have been laid off to graduate students who are no longer getting stipends to help with expenses.
“It’s all over the map in terms of who is showing up,” said Sonya Warwick, a spokeswoman for the food bank. “We’re meeting brand new clients who have exhausted their savings. Or if they are getting unemployment, it’s not enough.”
Numbers released Friday by U.S. labor officials show nearly 17,000 unemployment applications were submitted in New Mexico during the week ending May 2. That’s a nearly 40% increase from the previous week and magnitudes higher than a year ago.
Overall, about one in six New Mexico workers have filed claims since mid-March.
Nationally, the unemployment rate hit 14.7% in April, the highest rate since the Great Depression. The labor statistics show 20.5 million jobs vanished in the worst monthly loss on record, providing hard evidence of the damage the coronavirus has done to the economy.
Abigail Gold was able to get unemployment benefits fairly quickly after being laid off from her job as a server at an Albuquerque restaurant. She talked about some of her friends who haven’t been so lucky as she sorted through a big cardboard bin full of packages of pasta, boxes of cereal and bags of sugar. It was her first time volunteering at the food bank.
With a mask over her face and gloves on her hands, Gold – just days away from turning 23 – said she wanted to do something to help after being out of work for more than a month.
“It’s crazy. I never thought I’d ever experience anything like this – seeing all the stores close and the NBA and all that,” she said. “Businesses love money and profits, so why would they close. It just blows my mind and shows this is something serious.”
She wants to work and her employer is planning to reopen later this month depending on whether state officials relax restrictions on more businesses as part of a phased-in plan to restart the economy. But there’s still uncertainty as coronavirus cases continue to rise, and that scares Gold.
“I don’t want to get sick. My step-dad has Parkinson’s so if I was to bring it home to him, that would be horrible. I don’t want that to happen,” she said.
In southern New Mexico’s oil patch, Lisa and Daniel Gordon spent days trying to call the state’s unemployment line. They logged 200 calls one day, only to get through at the end of the day to be transferred and then disconnected.
They had to juggle calls to the unemployment office with keeping the phone lines open in a case of a job offer came in. Lisa Gordon, 51, described it as nerve wracking and frustrating.
The family is among those dealing with a double whammy that included the economic fallout from the pandemic and a dramatic decline in oil prices that resulted in many companies pulling the plug in the Permian Basin, which had been the center of the oil boom.
Daniel Gordon’s hours were first cut in February and then again in March. An automation engineer for an oil and gas service company, he was forced to work from home. Then came his separation papers. His salary was the sole income for the family, which includes a 21-year-old son who just finished up classes at the junior college in Hobbs and Lisa’s 77-year-old mother.
Gordon’s unemployment application is being processed now. But it could take anywhere from two to six weeks – or maybe eight.
“We’re hanging in there right now. But if something doesn’t come through soon, I’m not too sure what we’re going to do the rest of the month,” Lisa Gordon said.
Looking for jobs in Texas is an option as that state is opening up faster than New Mexico. Gordon said her husband will take whatever he can get, but they don’t want to leave Hobbs.
Heather Magdaleno, a 38-year-old mother of two, has been out of work since mid-March when the Albuquerque dental office she worked for closed because of public health orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
A hygienist for about 14 years, Magdaleno wants to get back to work. She misses having a schedule and being productive. But she also acknowledged that things will be different – no more magazines or coffee machine in the waiting room, more screening of patients and more time between appointments for disinfecting everything.
Magdaleno’s parents instilled in her at a young age the need to plan for her financial future, but she said she never imagined a global pandemic would land her on the unemployment rolls. It took a couple of weeks and repeated phone calls to get through the application process.
She’s making more money now between unemployment benefits and stimulus payments, but she knows that’s only temporary. She also has concerns about businesses that are shuttered now being able to recover.
“You see these signs everywhere that say we’re all in this together. But I heard someone say the other day that we all might be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” she said.