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Fixing Arizona’s unemployment benefit system


Dave Wells

At a recent community meeting on the state’s budget crisis with Republican and Democratic legislators, a courageous Karen Ickes of the Phoenix area shared her family crisis.

She and her husband both are unemployed, but her family had to survive eight weeks without an unemployment check after she lost her job.

She told legislators how deeply this affected 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, according to the state Department of Economic Security.

Although the check comes with payment for the missing weeks, families are in 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.

The governor and Legislature have not accepted it, however, 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 that 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, it passed a proposal expanding the weeks of benefits those unemployed might qualify for, but in that case, the federal government made it easy.

Legislators 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 to cover added benefit costs for a decade, we should take them up on the offer instead of doing nothing.

Just ask Karen Ickes – or her daughter.

Dave Wells has a doctorate in political economy and public policy and teaches at Arizona State University.

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