Nearly 350K in Arizona applied for jobless benefits since COVID-19 outbreak began
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Nearly 350K in Arizona applied for jobless benefits since COVID-19 outbreak began

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

PHOENIX — Another 95,000-plus Arizonans filed for unemployment benefits this past week.

The new claims are short of the record set the prior week — when nearly 130,000 filed for initial jobless benefits in Arizona.

But they boost the number of people who have filed for unemployment benefits in Arizona since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak to nearly 350,000.

The Department of Economic Security began on Monday, April 13, distributing the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits, on top of the state maximum of $240, with the additional dollars provided under a federal relief package.

“Our target is to make all retroactive payments to eligible claimants by the end of this week,” said department spokesman Brett Bezio.

But the number of applicants and active recipients of benefits may not provide a true picture of the people who have found themselves out of work.

There are any number who previously applied who are not yet receiving benefits as they work their way through the system.

There also are those who have not yet gotten through to apply.

DES Director Tom Betlach acknowledged last week that many people are finding it difficult to even apply for benefits. The system is built to handle what has been the typical average of only 3,000 applications a week, he said.

Betlach said his staff has been expanded, with more hiring to come and efforts being made to work with private groups to process applications.

Also missing in the numbers: State lawmakers have enacted restrictions on eligibility, notably a requirement to have earned a certain amount of money in the past four quarters. And that could leave lots of folks out.

Lawmakers enacted a requirement to have earned the equivalent of the minimum wage for at least 390 hours in at least one of the last four quarters. That translates out currently to $4,680. So someone at a minimum-wage job of $12 an hour would have needed to work at least 30 hours each and every week during the quarter to qualify. An individual whose highest quarterly earnings don’t reach that level is ineligible.

It’s even more complex than that. For the other three quarters, the total wages earned would have to total $2,340 for the entire period. There is an alternate way to qualify: Earn at least $7,000 combined in at least two of the last four quarters, with wages in one of these equal to or greater than $5,987.50.

Those same numbers also apply to tipped workers who, under state law, can be paid just $9 an hour.

Arizona law does require employers to ensure that each employee’s tips bring them up to the $12 figure. But if the company doesn’t report that difference, the worker could find himself or herself short of what is needed.

There is a separate federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program which the U.S. Department of Labor said is available for individuals ineligible for regular unemployment compensation. Those include people who are self-employed and those lacking sufficient work history. A spokesman said DES is still reviewing guidance from the federal government about how that will work.

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