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US fund runs out, meaning weekly pay is slashed for jobless Arizonans
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US fund runs out, meaning weekly pay is slashed for jobless Arizonans

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Beginning Monday, Sept. 14, more than 430,000 Arizonans who have lost their jobs will have to live on no more than $240 a week.

The state Department of Economic Security said Friday it was informed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that all funds allocated for the Lost Wage Assistance program had dried up after six weeks. That account had provided unemployed Americans with an extra $300 a week.

DES Director Michael Wisehart had warned a week earlier that the $44 billion earmarked nationally by President Trump would run out soon.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has no plans to revisit the $240-a-week cap on state benefits for unemployed Arizonans, which has not been altered since 2004 and is the lowest of any state except Mississippi.

To be eligible for the weekly checks, people must have been laid off or fired through no fault of their own.

The most recent report from the state Office of Economic Opportunity shows the number of people out of work increased between June and July by 19,500.

The biggest losses came in employment in bars and full- and limited-service restaurants. The already beleaguered industry shed another 8,900 jobs — 4.2% — meaning there are now 28,500 fewer people working there than a year ago.

The losses in this sector are particularly attributable not just to COVID-19 but to the executive orders issued by Ducey during the pandemic emergency.

Under those directives, restaurants are limited to 50% capacity. Bars are shuttered entirely unless they meet not just those occupancy limits but other restrictions on normal operations.

The monthly jobless report also showed continued losses of employment at amusement and theme parks and fitness and recreation centers, all businesses restricted by Ducey’s orders.

“The governor has had to make many tough decisions in order to protect public health,” gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said Friday. “Our focus has been on containing the spread of the virus and saving lives.”

Although Ducey doesn’t want to raise the state cap, a Morrison Institute survey conducted in late April and early May found that 52% of Arizonans polled want to permanently raise jobless benefits. That included 68% of Democrats questioned and 41% of Republicans.

Some in the GOP-controlled state Legislature are more open to the idea than Ducey.

Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said he believes there’s a case to be made for an adjustment. However, he said he doesn’t want a system where collecting benefits for up to 26 weeks — the current statutory limit — becomes a disincentive to work.

Adjusting the benefits would not affect the state budget. They are paid by a tax assessed against employers on the first $7,000 of each worker’s income, with the average employer charged $112 a year per worker.

The actual levy depends on how often a company lays off workers who are eligible for benefits. Rates can be as low as $3.50 a year per employee and as high as $900 for employers with the worst layoff records.

Any increase in benefits would be reflected in a change in premiums.

There are other options being considered that could help the unemployed.

One is adjusting the law that says Arizonans start losing benefits once their earnings hit $30 a week. Raising that figure to $300, as suggested by state Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, could encourage people to at least get some part-time employment without fear of losing all benefits.

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