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At least 631,000 Arizonans have sought regular jobless benefits in pandemic

At least 631,000 Arizonans have sought regular jobless benefits in pandemic

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series
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Even though Arizona’s stay-home orders were largely lifted in May, the economy has been slow to rebound due to lingering public restrictions and virus worries.

PHOENIX — More than 30,000 Arizonans filed for unemployment benefits last week, a sign the state economy is far from recovery.

The new first-time claims are about 7,000 above the previous week.

More than 700,000 Arizonans are now seeking first-time compensation from the state’s regular unemployment insurance program since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March.

That’s on top of another 189,000 who applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a special federally funded program for the self-employed, contract workers and others ineligible for regular state benefits.

But that figure may include some who previously applied for regular benefits — and were counted in the 700,000 figure — but then sought PUA when they were rejected.

The 700,000 figure is further complicated. By the state Department of Economic Security’s reckoning, there actually have been about 631,000 “unduplicated” initial claims, said DES spokesman Brett Bezio.

Part of the difference may be due to how some companies furlough workers.

For example, a firm may require employees to take off one week without pay every four weeks. During that week, the person is eligible for benefits.

The following week there are no benefits as the person is back on the job — until several weeks later when he or she is again without work or salary for a week. Bezio said some people may simply reopen their existing claims while others may file a new claim.

DES has previously reported 1.6 million total claims but says this included those who filed multiple times and does not reflect the actual number of claimants, now estimated at 631,000.

All this comes as DES is reporting new cases of fraud as the agency says it is being flooded with claims, legitimate and otherwise.

Efforts to combat that delayed sending out checks as scheduled on Monday.

“We understand that this additional processing may create additional hardships for you and your family,” DES said in a Twitter post. “We thank you for your patience and partnership in safeguarding unemployment assistance for Arizonans.”

It was in mid-March that Gov. Doug Ducey imposed restrictions on business operations, followed by a stay-at-home order.

Some of those orders are now gone, replaced with requirements for distancing and other restrictions. That, in turn, has limited the number of customers for some establishments, particularly bars and restaurants, a sector of the economy that’s among the hardest hit.

Other businesses continue to suffer, even with permission to reopen, as they find many Arizonans are still hesitant about going to crowded places and tourists are reluctant to get onto airplanes.

The latter has a ripple effect on the hotel industry, which has seen employment cut almost to half of levels a year ago.

The new numbers come as Arizona’s official unemployment rate reported last week dropped from 13.4% in April to 8.9% in May.

That would seem to run counter to an increasing number of claims for benefits.

But state officials acknowledged — as has the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics — a misclassification of certain people as working.

When that is factored out, the actual jobless rate for Arizona last month was 11%.

Another factor could be affecting accuracy of the numbers.

The COVID-19 outbreak has curbed government’s ability to get people to respond to the survey of 60,000 households nationwide — between 1,200 and 1,300 of those in Arizona — asking if they are working and, if not, whether they are looking.

In January, that response rate was 80%.

By May it had dropped to 59.1%.

The unemployment rate is calculated based on that household survey taken each month.

Also, the official employment numbers reflect what was going on more than a month ago; the unemployment claims figures from DES indicate more current trends of people seeking benefits.

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Arizona's liquor-license regulators have begun enforcement actions against bars that don't require employees and patrons to take safety measures to prevent or slow COVID-19 spread, Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday. Ducey said Arizona is being hit hard by the coronavirus, but he isn't issuing any new executive orders because his plan is public education and the urging of personal responsibility. He was pressed to explain why President Trump's Phoenix rally Tuesday was allowed to have a crowd of unmasked, shoulder-to-shoulder attendees.

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