By Dave Wells

At a recent community meeting on the state’s budget crisis with Republican and Democratic legislators a courageous Karen Ickes shared her family crisis. Both her husband and she are unemployed, but, after losing her job, for eight weeks her family had to survive without receiving an unemployment check.

She told state legislators how deeply this impacted her family. She held back tears as she revealed some of the tough questions she struggled with daily: “How do you tell your kids, you’re close to being homeless?” “How do you tell your children, they may not be able to afford to keep the pets that have always been part of your family?” And “How do you respond when your daughter offers her birthday money to help pay the rent?”

Karen’s family is not alone.

Arizona’s antiquated unemployment processing system leaves most workers waiting weeks for their first check. Half of those qualifying for unemployment benefits wait at least six weeks for their first check, according to the Department of Economic Security. Although when the check arrives it includes payment for the missing weeks, families wait weeks trying to survive a financial crisis not knowing when, or if, their check will come. Foisting such added suffering upon struggling families is intolerable.

The federal stimulus package includes $150 million for Arizona to upgrade this system, enabling faster processing. However, the governor and legislature have not accepted it because the federal government requires us to do more for the unemployed in order to qualify.

For $50 million, Arizona would have to allow workers to include the last full quarter they worked before they lost their job if it helps them meet the minimum earnings requirements to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. Under current law if you lost your job this month, the last quarter of earnings that would count toward your unemployment insurance eligibility would be the one which ended five months ago in December. April to May is an incomplete quarter and the last full quarter, January to March, is excluded.

Back in the pre-electronic submission age, such delays were necessary, because earnings paperwork would not yet have been received and processed by the state. But in an age where you can pay your bills online, the state doesn’t need those extra months to keep records up to date, and it unnecessarily prevents many workers from qualifying for benefits.

For the remaining $100 million, Arizona would have to do just one of three things to expand eligibility or benefits in order to qualify. We could add $15 a week per child for families with children or, alternatively, enable those seeking part-time work or permit those enrolled in qualifying work training programs to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.

These are relatively simple options and the $150 million stimulus funds would not only pay to modernize our processing system, but also cover about 10 years of the cost of the added benefits according to the National Employment Law Center.

The legislature has shown a capacity to act. Just a few weeks ago the Arizona legislature passed a proposal expanding the weeks of benefits those unemployed might qualify for, but in that case, the federal government made it easy. They said the state could sunset the extension when the federal government stopped paying for it.

But when the federal government offers to pay to modernize our processing system and pay for the added benefit cost for a decade, we should take them up on the offer, instead of doing nothing.
Wells holds a doctorate in Political Economy and Public Policy and teaches at Arizona State University. The views expressed are his own.
Copyright © 2009 by the Arizona Editorial Forum. 5/09


Anonymous said...

Amen, Mr. Wells! As a benefits recipient, I can tell you that it's a part-time job just wading through the overly-wordy application process. The state is so overwhelmed with benefits applications, it's impossible to reach a live body to help you navigate the system.

If you finally get awarded a benefits claim, God forbid you should have a glitch, once it gets up and running. If you or the AZUI online system makes an error in filing your claim, you are told by all resources to "call the hotline" to fix it; online reinstatement is not available.

However, calling requires hours of redial to get an actual answer instead of a busy signal; if you get past the "we are experiencing high call volume, please call back later" recording, you enter all kinds of information only to reach a second pre-recorded greeting that tells you the system is experiencing "difficulties," call back in an hour. Essentially, it's a completely vicious circle, a dead end.

I have been without benefits for a month through no fault of my own and can't resolve it. This is completely unacceptable.

How ironic that, at a time when we're supposed to be looking for re-employment, the very system set up to help Arizona's unemployed is trapping us in a bog of bureaucracy.

Wild Horse Farm said...

I have been on unemployment and when I first started my unemployment it took 4 weeks because the state balked about the 2 1/2 hours of vacation that I had left when I got laid off. The state of Arizona also cheated me out of $266.00 at the end of my unemployment so I re-applied for extended unemployment and it has been three weeks and still nothing from the State of Arizona or any unemployment. I'm also at the point of loosing my house and all of my personal belongings as I can't find a job nor is the State of Arizona giving me any unemployment to pay my bills. I have been searching for a job for over 1 year now and only had 3 interviews for jobs. I only apply for jobs that I'm qualified for and because I'm over 55 I don't get the interviews. These companies only want to hire young people with no experience thinking that they would learn better than an older more people experienced employee. Talk about age discrimination. It's live and well all over.