Bill aims to alleviate staffing shortages in New Mexico’s public safety sector
SANTA FE, N.M. – Lawmakers worked through the weekend to get several bills through to the next step.
One of them aims to chip away at statewide staffing issues at correctional facilities, police departments, and even the Children, Youth, and Families Department.
It would allow retirees to come back to work to fill some of the most urgent openings. This would allow any retired public state employee to return to work in 10 potential roles, from a courthouse security officer to a protective services investigator – all within the public safety realm. They could do it while they’re still receiving their pension payments.
“What we’re trying to do is meet a community safety need,” state Rep. Gail Chasey said.
Chasey is one of the bill’s four sponsors.
“We want to grow our future workforce, but fill an immediate need for safety reasons,” Chasey said.
The list of openings includes firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, emergency dispatchers, and correctional officers at the county and state levels in adult and juvenile facilities.
“Being able to get people with experience to back you up, to mentor some of these younger officers, to fill some of these positions that have been vacant for a long time, I think this is a great bill,” state Rep. Alan Martinez said.
It passed on the House floor over the weekend with some debate.
“I know that it’s not gonna work. We’re gonna come back again and again and again, and we’re gonna keep on bringing in these people until they all fade away, we’ll never hire new people again. What are we doing for our generation? Ladies and gentlemen of the house, we are leaving them behind,” state Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon said.
Grace Philips, general counsel for New Mexico counties, sees this as one solution to a staffing crisis in county detention centers she helped identify in 2022.
“It came to our attention that over half of the detention facilities in the state had vacancy rates of over 20%, which is really significant,” Philips said.
As of October, those numbers remain about the same. Some facilities are operating with a more than 50% vacancy rate.
Philips has supported return-to-work bills in the past, but says this one has more guardrails in place. Retirees have to return to entry-level positions, and you have to be retired already, which takes away the incentive to retire early.
“It’s not going to provide an incentive for someone to retire just so they can come back to work and collect their retirement along with their salary,” Philips said.
They also have to contribute to the Public Employees Retirement Association – or PERA – so it benefits the fund and all other public employees in the long run.
“I hope people will be moved to serve, I really think of this as an opportunity to serve a community, and it doesn’t have to be full-time,” Philips said.
A spokesperson for the New Mexico Corrections Department says there are currently 277 vacant correctional officer positions statewide.
This bill was scheduled for a Senate committee Monday, but it hasn’t been heard yet.