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Kozachik: Governor, increase state unemployment insurance — now
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Kozachik: Governor, increase state unemployment insurance — now

OPINION: Kozachik tells Ducey he risks a catastrophe without raise in state payments

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

In Arizona, the unemployment insurance safety net to which you’re entitled is $240 per week. That is the equivalent of somebody working a 40-hour workweek at $6 per hour.

If the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit of an additional $600 per week is not extended, our governor and state legislature are effectively asking the nearly a million families who have received state benefits to survive on less than half of the current minimum wage. Without an extension by Congress, those extra dollars end on July 31.

Gov. Doug Ducey stated during his most recent press briefing that he is willing to wait on Congress to act. Arizona’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund sits with over $600 million dollars left to disburse. At the current burn rate, the fund will be depleted by the end of October. That’s also the date the governor’s eviction moratorium will end. Clearly, without some leadership, there’s a significant economic cliff ahead.

To be clear, the cliff is for families. And once families are unable to pay utilities, rent or buy food, that cliff becomes an economic abyss for the state. The governor and state legislature cannot wait to act.

Arizona ranks 49th nationally in the rate of unemployment benefits we pay. At $235 per week, only Mississippi pays less than we do. For comparison, consider other border states; California pays $450, New Mexico pays $511, Utah pays $580 and Colorado pays $618. With the expiration of the FPUC support net, we stand with Mississippi in asking our neighbors who have lost work due to COVID-19 to live on $6 per hour.

The governor is not without options. If his concern is emptying the UITF, Ducey could easily request a no-interest loan from our Congressional delegation to top off the fund. The pandemic will not last forever. Eventually employers will rehire workers.

Once that happens, they will again be paying into the fund. The promise of those payments constitutes the revenue stream for repaying the loan. None of us can predict the timing, but all of us can see in that equation the terms of a deal to be made. And our families and neighbors — indeed, our economy — stands to benefit.

The loan doesn’t fix the fact that we’re offering a sub-minimum wage safety net. In the normal course of affairs, the legislature sets the unemployment rates. If the governor won’t show the leadership of calling them into a special session specifically to address that issue, he could do as he has done over 40 times since the pandemic hit in March. That is, point to the existing public- health emergency and unilaterally increase the unemployment safety net by executive order.

The state has over $500 million in unspent CARES Act money. Some of those funds could be used to kick-start a new Arizona Pandemic Unemployment Fund. Pending either action by the state legislature to increase our rates, or by Congress to extend their support, that new fund can become a temporary reprieve.

Waiting on Congress places Arizonans on the precipice of an economic catastrophe. Even the additional $600 federal safety net amounts to working 40 hours at $15 per hour. Waiting is not an option. Arizona must both increase our own unemployment insurance safety net so we’re not asking people to survive on $6 per hour, and Arizona must show some leadership and act to fill the gap being left by Congress until they adopt an extension of the Federal unemployment support.

In the alternative, we can proudly stand with Mississippi in how we care for families in need.

Steve Kozachik, a Democrat, is the Tucson city councilman for Ward 6.

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