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Frustrated Arizonans trying to get unemployment benefits wait for help while Governor Ducey campaigns

Arizona Department of Economic Security
Posted at 8:50 PM, Aug 12, 2020
and last updated 2021-03-16 19:01:36-04

Frustrated Arizonans trying to get state unemployment benefits tell ABC15 they’re just a number in a system that is still difficult to access. Now they’re learning that while they wait for money owed them by the state, the person who once ran the benefits system has cashed in on a salary approaching six figures.

On Wednesday, reported the man first in charge of the state’s unemployment system, Tom Betlach, was paid nearly $95,000 for 75 days of work.

Arizona Republic Reporter Craig Harris writing, “Betlach's salary was about $8,925 a week — a pay rate 62% higher than ASRS Chief Executive Paul Matson, the state's highest paid employee last year, according to records obtained by The Arizona Republic.”

Though the distribution of unemployment benefits has been overwhelmed by demand, Governor Doug Ducey and his staff will tell you it’s become more effective and that Tom Betlach is one of the finest public servants in Arizona. The governor points to $8.5 billion paid to more than 1.1 million people since March.

However, he barely acknowledges the many who are still struggling to get money that’s now months overdue. Every day, in a stream of emails to ABC15, those individuals share personal stories of heartbreak and poverty.

John Cooper is one who has been trying for two months to get into the state’s unemployment system. “My day essentially consists of waking up; I call DES at 7 a.m., that’s when they open,” Cooper told ABC15’s Nicole Grigg. “You pray that you are in the queue right away. Otherwise, it’s just a constant calling back, time after time after time, all throughout the day.”

And, while Cooper and others are struggling, where is Governor Doug Ducey? Based on his recent schedule, it’s clear the governor is more focused on presidential politics than addressing ongoing dysfunction with state unemployment benefits. He was in Washington, D.C. last week meeting with President Donald Trump.

On Tuesday he appeared with Vice President Mike Pence at two campaign-style events in Arizona. The events signify the importance of Arizona to Trump-Pence victory in November.

ABC15 asked the governor why he isn’t working to get unemployment money owed to Arizonans and instead is trying to convince them to vote for President Trump?

In an email, a spokesperson focused on a developing Ducey narrative, that COVID 19 is in decline throughout the state:

“The virus remains widespread in Arizona, but thanks to the partnership and cooperation of Arizonans who are following the public health recommendations—masking up, physically distancing, and more—we are making real progress to slow the spread. The Rt remains the lowest in the country. Our percent positivity continues to decline. Our hospitals are seeing a relief with a reduction in COVID use for ICU and inpatient beds. And labs within the state have the capacity to process more tests than ever before and provide timely results to patients and state contact tracers.”

When ABC15 pressed the spokesperson on DES failures, he went on to say, “DES is working seven days a week to process claims, provide customer service support, and root out fraud. To handle the massive surge in claims, the Department has hired more than 900 new employees, and counting.”

Even with the new hires, ABC15 continues to receive emails from those on the brink or who have already lost everything while waiting for unemployment benefits. ABC15 Investigative Reporter Courtney Holmes follows the influx of viewer emails about unemployment and notices new issues every day. Among the roadblocks:

• Glitches in the system that prevent payments;
• Fraud investigations that delay benefits;
• Changes in qualifying questions that are critical to certifying weekly claims;
• Back pay dates that move farther into the future every week;
• Misinformation consistently relayed to claimants.

In August, ABC15 began forwarding viewer emails directly to DES leadership, so they could understand first-hand what claimants are experiencing. The response from DES was swift and rare. A spokesperson placed a phone call expressing thanks for the information and asked that it be organized into a spreadsheet or zip file.

ABC15 is in the process of preparing the spreadsheet. Several people whose information was forwarded tell ABC15 that they have been in communication with DES.