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Arizona offers relief for workers displaced by pandemic

Arizona offers relief for workers displaced by pandemic

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series
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PHOENIX — Arizonans displaced from employment due to COVID-19 will be getting some financial relief.

In an executive order Friday, Gov. Doug Ducey agreed to waive certain existing requirements for those who want unemployment insurance. That includes having to wait a week before getting the first check.

The order means that those who are out of work and receiving payments do not have to comply with existing laws that require they actually be out searching for employment to keep those checks coming.

Christina Corieri, an advisor to Ducey, said the changes are good for at least the next two weeks.

She said the governor will reevaluate them at that time to decide whether they remain necessary.

Corieri said that there could be even broader relief in the future — and not just for those whose employment is affected by the pandemic.

She said the governor is aware that Arizona’s maximum weekly benefit of $240 a week has not been altered since 2004. During that time the state’s minimum wage has gone from $5.15 an hour to $12 now.

“We are looking at a variety of options,” Corieri said.

“We understand the pain that is out there and these folks that have lost their employment and their livelihood and need assistance,” she said. “And we are going to have additional actions that will be announced in the coming weeks.”

Corieri acknowledged that, unlike changing the rules on who is eligible for benefits, the cap on payments is set in statute. And that would require the governor to get approval from lawmakers.

“The Legislature is still able to come and vote,” Corieri said.

In waiving the rules, Ducey is taking advantage of permission granted to the states by the U.S. Department of Labor, which sets some of the overall parameters for eligibility.

Some of the changes are simply tweaks to existing rules that entitle people who are laid off through no fault of their own to get up to six months of benefits equal to half their salary — with that $240 state-set statutory cap.

So, for example, it makes clear that people can collect benefits if their employer has closed up shop, whether permanently or temporarily, due to the virus. But payments would be made only to those who are not still getting checks from their employers. The executive order also spells out that benefits are available to those who are required to be quarantined.

And workers can leave their jobs and still be eligible for unemployment payments “due to risk of exposure or infection.” Corieri said there is no clear definition at the moment of what constitutes a risk that would justify quitting a job and still collecting benefits.

Finally, it allows someone to quit and get weekly jobless checks “to care for a family member who’s been infected.”

More people collecting benefits means more money being paid out of the trust fund that is financed by a tax paid by employers on the first $7,000 of each worker’s salary. The actual levy is linked to an employer’s record, with those who have a record of firing or laying off workers paying more than companies that have few or no layoffs. Ducey’s order says the fact that a worker can collect benefits under the waived provisions due to COVID-19 will not count against that company’s experience rating.

Someone still will have to replenish the fund, which is required to be self-supporting. But the immediate goal was to provide financial relief to people who were put out of work by the virus and to small employers, Corieri said.

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