More than 470,000 Arizonans have filed for unemployment since pandemic began

More than 470,000 Arizonans have filed for unemployment since pandemic began

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

An additional 52,350 Arizonans filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week, bringing the tally of those who have sought help during the pandemic to more than 470,000.

In that time, Gov. Doug Ducey has closed various businesses and limited individual travel.

The 470,000 figure translates to more than 13% of the state’s workforce of nearly 3.6 million. And that would set a record.

But the numbers — and the calculation of the unemployment rate — may not add up.

First, the broader eligibility established under federal law allows people who are not actually out of work but whose hours have been cut to seek benefits.

Second, the claims also include those who have been self-employed. And they never have been counted in the total workforce and their work situations have never affected the official jobless rate.

Finally, there are unusual situations where companies have furloughed workers for one week a month. That makes them eligible for the benefits of up to $840 — the $240 basic cap plus the additional $600 available through federal dollars.

But it leaves the question of how DES counts them after they go back to work but then are laid off again.

All this comes as the head of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is saying that one solution to the large number of people out of work is to retrain them to do something else.

Glenn Hamer said while the pandemic has shuttered many businesses, it actually may create opportunities.

“One example would be we are going to need an aggressive contact-tracing program as we move forward and open up parts of the economy that have been frozen,” he said. Hamer figures that could be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people in Arizona alone who work the phones and reach out to people who may have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

He figures those could be good jobs for people who until the pandemic had been working in bars, restaurants and other elements of the hospitality industry.

Hamer also figures there will be additional demand for people with technical skills who can help internet and telephone companies increase broadband capacity to deal with the fact that more people are working from home and teleconferences have replaced face-to-face meetings.

“There are certainly areas of the economy that are going to require new workers and new skills,” Hamer said.

He acknowledged that, in many cases, the people who are seeking unemployment benefits are those who presume they will be getting their old jobs back when the economy recovers. And they may see no benefit in training for and taking another job in the interim.

And then there’s the fact that someone who has been laid off can take in up to $840 a week. But Hamer said he’s not deterred.

“People want to work,” he said. And Hamer said that the skills they pick up would provide “versatility,” giving them a chance to expand their job prospects when the economy recovers.

Anyway, he said, the enhanced benefits run only through the end of July unless extended. And that would leave those still out of work with a maximum of $240 a week — the equivalent of $6 an hour.

Less clear is who would pay for all that retraining.

Hamer said the state has some funds. And he figures there might be additional dollars flowing from Washington.

The chamber — and its members — have a financial interest in minimizing the number of people collecting benefits.

The state benefits are paid from a trust account created by a tax each company pays on the first $7,000 of each employee’s income. As the funds in the account are drained, they will have to be replaced eventually by higher premiums on what employers pay.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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