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Unemployed Arizonans need more state help

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

Life has become a little better for unemployed Arizonans, but the state still is not doing all it should to help those without a job.

Friday, Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation giving at least 13 more weeks of unemployment benefits to Arizonans who have been laid off.

But the move is hardly a gesture of generosity from the state. All of the money to extend benefits to 72 weeks is coming from the federal government as part of the stimulus bill.

Seven more weeks could be added if Arizona’s unemployment rate hits 8 percent. At the end of March, it stood at 7.8 percent.

Brewer signed the legislation after it was passed by the Legislature – with lawmakers griping about federal mandates and requirements.

For example, the federal stimulus package also includes “modernization” changes, providing a longer period of unemployment benefits for laid-off workers who are receiving education or training for a new vocation. That change also would make people eligible for benefits even if their former job was only part time.

But those additional benefits are paid by the federal government only as long as the stimulus money lasts – then the state must continue the benefits. That was a commitment the Legislature was unwilling to make – an unfortunate decision. Accepting the money would have benefitted many job-seeking Arizonans.

Arizona also is failing to process unemployment benefits in a timely manner – despite adding staff and having employees working nights and weekends.

Employees for the state Department of Economic Security are simply overwhelmed. In one recent week, DES received 13,722 claims for new and extended unemployment benefits – on top of 12,356 the week before. More than 110,000 Arizonans are receiving unemployment benefits, up from 28,000 in January 2008.

The William E. Morris Institute for Justice, a Phoenix group that represents low-income residents, filed a federal suit last month to have the state unemployment process speeded up. It acted on behalf of a woman who had been waiting five months for benefits and a man who ended up in a homeless shelter after waiting unsuccessfully for 10 weeks.

The suit was dropped after both received their benefits. But it indicates deep problems in the state’s ability to respond to this unprecedented economic crisis.

The good news for Arizonans: They now are eligible for a longer period of unemployment benefits. The bad news: They still face daunting challenges in getting the benefits started.

State benefits will last longer. But unemployed Arizonans still face a wait before benefits start.

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