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600,000 unemployment claims filed in Arizona during coronavirus pandemic

600,000 unemployment claims filed in Arizona during coronavirus pandemic

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series

COVID-19 pandemic responsible for nearly all the job losses

  • Updated

Nearly empty parking lots at malls reflect the job losses in Tucson and across the country. Last month, Arizona’s jobless rate was 12.6% while the U.S. rate was 14.7%.

Nearly 25,000 Arizonans filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits last week.

The addition of 24,723 new claims brings the total since the COVID-19 outbreak to 601,518. That amounts to 17 percent of the total state workforce.

Those numbers might not reflect all those who are out of work.

Brett Bezio, spokesman for the Department of Economic Security, said that throughout May his agency has answered an average of 7,200 calls each day.

But Bezio acknowledged to Capitol Media Services that DES is getting anywhere from 70,000 to 120,000 calls per day, whether from those seeking to apply or those seeking to renew benefits. Put another way, the agency is able to get to only one call out of 10 that is coming in.

Bezio said efforts are underway to improve that.

"We have expanded our unemployment insurance team substantially to nearly 700,'' he said. "We will continue to grow our team to ensure we can provide applicants with the assistance they need.''

And, in a bid to deal with the crush, DES opened its call center Sunday and Monday, even with the latter being a holiday.

Meanwhile, the agency is still playing catch-up with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. That is the special $600-a-week coverage available for those who are ineligible for regular state jobless benefits, including the self-employed and workers in the "gig'' environment like Uber drivers.

While people have been eligible for the PUA payments for months, the state has been slow in actually setting up a process for applications.

Michael Wisehart, the agency's deputy director of employment and relief services, said the system set up to handle regular unemployment claims would not work for those in the PUA program. So the state had to hire an outside firm to set up a separate system. And that did not go online until early this month.

Even then, the state was only paying for the prior three weeks. Now, DES is informing eligible recipients they can now seek benefits retroactively as far back as Feb. 2.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has dissolved his stay-at-home order.

But business — and employment — remains far from normal as restrictions remain on the number of customers who can go into restaurants, gyms and malls at one time. Also, some people are not willing to go out until they feel safe.

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