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Can you live on $240 a week? Growing efforts to increase Arizona's unemployment benefits

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-16 21:36:48-04

Can your family live on $240 a week? If you are unemployed in Arizona, that is now the maximum benefit you can get through unemployment insurance.

For months, that’s been masked by the hundreds of dollars in federal assistance added to the amounts. But now that federal assistance is over and there are questions about why Arizona pays the second lowest benefit of any state and why the amount hasn't been raised since 2004?

"What do we do with a mass unemployment event." That was State Democratic Representative Mitzi Epstein back in March in front of legislators before anyone knew what the pandemic might cause. She proposed increasing Arizona's weekly unemployment benefit and make other changes. But Epstein says debate wasn't allowed on her amendment and it didn't go any further.

Now Epstein and others want changes including raising the weekly benefit. "We think that should be enough to cover your rent essentially," she says. At $960 a month, current unemployment benefits are below even the average $1,141 Phoenix monthly rent.

Andrew Sugrue with the Arizona Center for Economic Progress is asking legislators to increase the amount to around $490 weekly. "That would bring us in line with states that are our neighbors," Sugrue says. The Center and other organizations listed their recommendations in an open letter to state elected officials. The letter asks the governor for an executive order addressing them.

Right now, minimum wage workers must work an average 30 hours a week to qualify for unemployment. That excludes many part time workers. The Center and others recommend the number of hours people can work and still qualify, should be cut in half. Epstein says currently "it is so low that people don't have an incentive to work."

That "lack of incentive to work" is also used by people not wanting to raise benefits. They say workers won't want to go back to work. Both Epstein and Sugrue disagree with that. They say with more money in workers pockets, more money will be spent at businesses and it will help the economy.

State Democratic legislators have called for an investigation into unresolved unemployment benefit claim issues. And they are asking the governor for an independent audit of Arizona Department of Economic Security processes.

As for a governor's executive order involving unemployment benefit amounts, that office tells me "as a budget issue, this would require action from the Legislature. Arizona's constitution prevents a governor from doing this via executive order."