PHOENIX, AZ — The Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) says it will begin accepting applications the week of May 12, for an unemployment program specifically for certain workers who have been deemed ineligible for regular unemployment insurance.
According to DES, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program extends unemployment benefits to:
Workers who have exhausted their benefits; are self-employed; are employed-part time; lack enough work history; or don't qualify for other reasons.
Eligible workers can expect a state benefit ranging from $117 to $240 per week and an additional $600 in weekly federal benefits according to a DES press release. It will be retroactive to the date of eligibility to February 2.
Signed into federal law on March 27, the implementation of PUA has been delayed in Arizona and other states, because they didn't have the infrastructure to process claims for worker whose employers do not pay into the unemployment insurance system.
Arizona Congressman David Schweikert told ABC15, "We put a lot of burden on the state to try and get their computer systems, get their methodology, get there mechanisms working."
During the weeks that followed viewers contacted ABC15 complaining of hours-long waits on the phone only to be disconnected and website crashes.
Many viewers said they didn't know if they were eligible, and had no way to find out.
With an outdated system and record unemployment claims DES was not able to meet quickly rising numbers of people calling in and using its website.
Mikki Gray, of Phoenix, was one of the workers who spent hours on the phone trying to get through. The bar where she worked has been closed since mid-March. She sent ABC15 a letter addressed to Governor Doug Ducey and media, explaining what her experience was like.
She wrote in part, "Today alone I was on hold for 2 hours trying to speak to an unemployment advocate before I was forced into a voicemail that was full. I just cried. You may be aware that that the system is overloaded, but you do not seem to understand what that actually means to us. We are scared, we are mentally exhausted and desperate. We are drowning."
ABC15 also spoke to business owner Karen Scherer. After travel restrictions were put in place in the second week of March she says her Chandler pet sitting business completely stopped. She applied almost immediately. "Every single morning I go on the website to see if there's any more information. If there's an application. If there's another application, then we have to fill out. Every single morning again there's nothing," she said.
On April 13 DES told ABC15 it had received guidance from the US Department of Labor but "implementation of this provision will require significant system changes. We are accepting applications for PUA, and these initial claims will be processed once the system modifications are in place."
Scherer says she is "cautiously hopeful," now that a start date has been revealed but, "I think this is going to take more than three weeks to get their act together."
Mikki Gray has no confidence in the announcement.
"It (the press release) also says that DES continues to communicate with people that have been denied and not a single soul that I know has received any communication," she said.
Without being able to get through to actually speak to DES she has no idea if she's even eligible for the program.
It's a gamble she can't afford to take. With the bar where she works not reopening anytime soon and the uncertainty of a safety net she's started looking for a different job.
"There's just so much vagueness," she said. "If we wait for two weeks and we stay home and we sit like we're supposed to and already we're struggling. Already we're suffering and then it doesn't happen? Well that's just two weeks of wasted time."