The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions held a news conference May 2 at McGee Park in Farmington. Applications were accepted at the event for the Energy Transition Act Displaced Worker Assistance Fund.
The fund is available to residents who were terminated from employment or whose contacts were terminated because of the abandonment of the San Juan Generation Station and adjacent coal mine.
PNM San Juan Generating Station, Westmoreland San Juan Mine, AIMS Cos. and Savage Services were included in those eligible to apply for benefits.
Sarita Nair, NMDWS cabinet secretary, said, “We’re so excited to be here … to kick off the applications for the energy transition or displaced worker assistance.”
Nair said she has been in New Mexico for 25 years, but grew up in Pittsburgh and recalled the 115,000 jobs lost during the closure of steel plants. She said the transition to globalization affected nearly every family in that community, but there was not the level of support there that she has seen in New Mexico.
“When I came to lead this department and got a chance to execute on the energy transition, it became my passion project,” Nair said, adding that she was “excited to see it finally come to fruition.”
Passage of the Energy Transition Act in 2019 effected the feasibility of continued operation of San Juan Generating Station, the Westmoreland Mine and other associated businesses. Mine operations ceased at Westmoreland Mine Sept. 14, 2022, and the generating station shut down Sept. 30, 2022, and is being decommissioned.
Nair said the three main components of the act were to establish funds for economic development for new businesses, provide funds for related “issues in Indian Country” and establish the displaced worker assistance fund.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs will manage funds allotted to tribal areas while NMDWS will administer disbursement of the a $12 million fund for displaced worker assistance.
“That money came from PNM last summer,” Nair said. “We got it appropriated through the legislature this year, and that’s why we’re all here today.”
Companies that contracted with the mine or the generating station and went out of business as a result of closure of the facilities are eligible, according to Nair.
“We got a nice broad coverage for folks who lost their jobs,” Nair said.
Nair said NMDWS will accept applications at area offices during regular business hours.
Representatives from San Juan College and Dine College attended the meeting at McGee Park to answer questions about continuing education. Echo Food Bank personnel were also present to explain their services.
“Food insecurity is a huge issue in this region. We want to make sure that people have those resources,” Nair said.
Applicants should bring federal, state or tribal photo identification, current proof of residency or proof of residency at the time of layoff, which may include a pay stub or utility bill.
Nair said that determination letters will be sent a few weeks after applications are submitted. If approved, paper checks will be available to pick up at the local Workforce Solutions office.
The amount applicants can expect to receive is $20,000, which will count as taxable income, Nair said.
Kirtland Mayor and State Rep. Mark Duncan said when this started about three years ago, “It was tough to see family after family leave in search of another job.” He said after talking with other legislators, “This was something we could wrap our arms around very easily and very quickly, and we could push this.”
Duncan said that if this money would have hit the ground a couple of years ago, some people may have stayed and started businesses.
“I'm grateful that we're here today. I'm grateful for this part of this puzzle. I think it's extremely important and we hope that you stay within the state of New Mexico,” Duncan said to attendees.
Nair extended a “huge thank you to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham,” who she said was “more engaged in this project than anything else that's going on in my department.”
“She put her money where her words were in this past session and allocated an additional $15 million to the displaced worker assistance fund,” Nair said.
During a Q&A, Nair said they are aware of about 370 people who signed up for unemployment benefits and were on lists of displaced employees provided by various companies.
Nair said that before the layoffs, they had estimates of as many as 600 people who were affected, which is how they arrived at the $20,000 payment amount. “We didn’t want to run out of the $12 million.
Nair encouraged people to bring family members, as they are also eligible for the education and retraining funding that is part of the fund. She acknowledged that many families will now have to depend on two incomes, rather than one.
Nair estimated that checks would be available by the end of May or early June.
When asked if there was a deadline for application, Nair said there was not one. “We want to kind of see how many people come in this first wave and how much proactive outreach we need to do,” Nair said.
Workers who lived in Arizona but worked in New Mexico are not eligible because the fund is provided by the state of New Mexico, Nair said. She added that NMDWS tried to make it as broad as possible so anyone who lived on the Navajo Nation should sign up because they have “partnerships with the nation.”
If all the allotted money is not spent, Nair said another “round of input from the energy transition act community advisory committee” will take place determine how else the fund might be used.
“Hopefully by then, the economic development and Indian Affairs money will also be out there so that we can align the training opportunities with the jobs that are expected to be created,” Nair said.
When asked why it took so long to make the money available, Nair said the money was coming from PNM and the company was tied up in litigation.
“People were suing about whether they even could close the plants and how they were supposed to pay for the plant closure and how much PNM shareholders were supposed to pay versus us ratepayers,” Nair said.
The NMDWS also had to go to the legislature to get the approval to spend the money, which happened in March, Nair said.
“Here we are in May, and that last leg was the shortest one,” Nair said of the time it took to establish the application process and to set up application events.