Unemployment benefits offered to workers at New Mexico restaurants defying COVID-19 closures

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Workers at restaurants that refused to close indoor dining in defiance of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s COVID-19 public health order were offered unemployment support by the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions which cited “dangerous” working conditions as the eateries continued to operate.

Nine restaurants across New Mexico were listed in the Monday announcement which offered unemployment benefits to workers that left due to safety concerns related to the pandemic.

On July 13, Lujan Grisham ordered that all restaurants in New Mexico close indoor dining to slow the spread of the coronavirus, allowing for outdoor patio seating to be offered at 50 percent capacity.

Several restaurants protested the order with some remaining open in opposition, having their food service licenses subsequently suspended by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED).

MORE:New Mexico restaurants defiant of Gov. Lujan Grisham's order to close amid COVID-19

In Carlsbad, the Trinity Hotel and Restaurant and two Pizza Inn locations defied the order, and workers were offered benefits by the state.

In Hobbs, workers at the third Pizza Inn location and at Casey’s were offered unemployment, along with two Los Hermanitos restaurants and TJ’s Diner in Farmington.

Country Family Restaurant in Kirtland was also offered unemployment benefits for workers as it continued to operate despite the state’s mandates.

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Cabinet Secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions Bill McCamley said the decision to extend the unemployment benefits was intended to protect workers and the public.

Bill McCamley

“This isn’t about retaliation. It’s about protecting the safety of New Mexicans,” he said. “The data is showing us that indoor dining is a major cause of the spread of coronavirus.”

MORE:Carlsbad restaurants protest state-mandated COVID-19 closures, stay open for indoor dining

McCamley said the state used data from a JP Morgan study that showed in-person restaurant spending was a strong predictor of future COVID-19 infection, along with data from NMED that showed workers were getting infected with the virus at an increasingly higher rate than other sectors.

On July 14, NMED reported 15 percent of all of its rapid responses for COVID-19 infection were for restaurant employees, and McCamley said that rate had likely increased in the following weeks.

“Gov. Lujan Grisham is making these decisions based on data and protecting New Mexicans,” he said. “If employers are going to put workers in a dangerous situation where there is a high chance of them getting hurt, there’s an issue there.”

MORE:New Mexico restaurants question Supreme Court's authority in COVID-19 closure battle

Typically, an employee must show good cause to be approved for unemployment after a resignation, McCamley said, and the decision by his Department would create a blanket approval for workers who cited COVID-19-related health concerns from the nine restaurants violating the health order.

“It was our decision to offer workers a safe alternative,” he said. “When they’re working inside, in a restaurant situation they’re at a higher risk of being exposed (to the virus).”

But the nine restaurants listed in violation were a “small minority,” McCamley said, as most restaurants in New Mexico either used existing or newly created patio seating to serve customers during the pandemic.

MORE:New Mexico takes action against Carlsbad restaurants open despite COVID-19 health order

“We want to compliment employers that have found creative ways to open,” he said. “The majority of businesses are finding ways to protect their employees and the public at large. Unfortunately, we have a small minority who are violating the health orders and putting their workers and the public at risk when they don’t have to.”

But Janie Balzano, owner of the Trinity Hotel and Restaurant said remaining open was necessary to protect her business from closing and thus her workers’ jobs.

MORE:Carlsbad business leaders call for repeal New Mexico's latest COVID-19 health order

“Our employees are standing with us and praying for us,” Balzano said. “But it does weigh on people. They don’t know what will come next. I think the whole industry is holding its breath.”

Since the Trinity’s license was suspended on July 13, Balzano said she received no official contact from the state.

Meanwhile, business at the restaurant boomed, she said, with strong support from the community and visitors from as far away as Lubbock, Texas and Edgewood in northern New Mexico.

MORE:Protesters gather at Carlsbad Pizza Inn, oppose New Mexico closing eateries amid COVID-19

“It’s been very busy. We continue to have people come from all kinds of places to support us,” Balzano said. “It’s been pretty amazing.

If restaurants were forced to close, Balzano pointed to numerous other sectors that could be impacted, from construction companies to babysitters.

She said she hoped the governor would consult with the restaurants to find a compromise that would protect both the public and economic health of the state and local communities.

MORE:Carlsbad restaurants re-open amid COVID-19 pandemic

“It isn’t just restaurants that shut down. It’s everything else that goes with it,” Balzano said. “I just wish that we could have an open conversation with the governor so that we can keep the money flowing into the state.”

Pizza Inn owner Michael Moore said none of the 90 employees at his three locations voiced any interest in quitting amid the pandemic.

He said he hired four new workers at the Hobbs restaurant to help meet the increased volume of sales.

MORE:New Mexico eateries prepare to reopen on June 1, adapt to COVID-19 health measures

Operations at the three restaurants continued to be safe, Moore said, as he ensured they followed previous guidelines — issued when restaurants could reopen on June 1 — that all workers where protective face masks, seat customers six feet apart and continually sanitize high-contact areas.

“Our sales have increased quite a bit,” he said. “It’s going quite well. We’ve spent thousands of dollars, pretty much everything we had to comply with the state’s health orders and we’ll continue to do so. We’ll take it day by day and continue to do this as safe as possible.”

As for the unemployment offer, Moore said he viewed it as a punitive action by the state to get his workers to quit.

“I don’t think it was done as a friendly gesture. They’re not really trying to help,” he said. “With the employees, we’re not forcing anyone to work but all have continued to do so.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.