State Senate Committee passes a bill that would raise unemployment benefits

Posted at 4:28 PM, Feb 23, 2021

PHOENIX — The Arizona legislature hasn’t increased the weekly unemployment benefit in nearly two decades, but it now seems poised to do it.

Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 9-1 for a plan that raises the weekly benefit from $240 to $320 a week.

Arizona’s economy was humming along a year ago before the pandemic hit. By April, nearly a half million people were out of work and the legislature learned quickly $240 a week doesn’t go very far.

“The point of this bill is to move a portion of the unemployment system into the 21st century,” said State Senator Vince Leach (R) Tucson District 11.

To pay for the increase, employers will see their yearly unemployment insurance go up from $7,000 to $8,000 in 2022 and it will go up to $9,000 a year in 2023. Once the unemployment trust fund reaches $1.5 billion, weekly benefits will go up to $400 a week. That’s predicted to occur by 2027.

For some members, the issue is the Department of Economic Security.

“The biggest issue we were told wasn’t so much there wasn’t money to give them,” State Senator Kelly Townsend, (R) Mesa District 16 said, “It was a broken system. A broken old computer system. Why aren’t we talking about that?”

When unemployment jumped from 4.5% in February 2020 to 13.4% in April 2020, the Department of Economic Security had neither the staff nor the technology to deal with the onslaught of claims. Many of those claims were fraudulent, adding to the time it took people who were filing legitimate claims to receive their benefits.

“Are there any plans to deal with the actual process?” Townsend asked. “We may increase the amount they get but what if they don’t even get a phone call answered to get it?”

Senate President Karen Fann is the sponsor of the bill. She promised to make sure concerns like Townsend’s and those of Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the lone no vote, are addressed before the bill goes to the full Senate. Senator Ugenti-Rita (R) Scottsdale District 23 wants assurances the people filing claims are actively pursuing employment.

“Increasing unemployment benefits does not incentivize people to get back to work,” Ugenti-Rita said.

The House is also considering a separate version. That bill raises unemployment benefits to $300 a week. The Senate bill also reduces the number of weeks a person can collect unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks unless the governor declares a state of emergency.