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'I can breathe again' Phoenix substitute teacher finally receives unemployment benefits

Posted at 6:07 PM, May 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-15 21:08:48-04

PHOENIX — A Phoenix substitute teacher has finally received federal unemployment benefits from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program after waiting for months for answers.

ABC15 first spoke to Deniz Atca back in March, after he had been rejected from Arizona's unemployment system because he didn't earn enough money to qualify for benefits in the state.

Atca is a full-time substitute teacher at Cartwright School District and Phoenix Union High School District. He hasn't worked since schools closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He has a 9-year-old son and a wife who was also laid off.

In order to qualify for unemployment insurance in Arizona, you have to make $4,680 in a calendar quarter. Atca was short $600.

"I didn't know how I was going to get through the summer," he said Friday.

For the past two months, Atca said he's been struggling to keep his family afloat.

"We may have to leave Arizona; we may have to sell our house and do what we got to do," he said.

The federal CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program to help those who can't work because of COVID-19 and don't qualify for state benefits. But, the Arizona Department of Economic Security couldn't tell Atca if he qualified. DES didn't even launch the program until May 12.

"If I didn't get this unemployment, it could've broke me," said Atca.

Atca said it was tough on his son Robbie, too.

"I got to look at this kid every day and you know, and I've got to tell him 'It's going to be ok,' you know? I gotta tell him 'We're going to get through this.'"

On Wednesday, he received two checks in the mail, one for him and one for his wife.

"I almost got to my knees, and I was like thank you, God," he said. "It's that sense of just relief. All your anxiety just goes away."

They got three weeks' worth of the minimum benefit amount (equivalent to $117 in weekly PUA benefits plus the $600 weekly Federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance benefit, for a total of $2,151 for three weeks.)

In total, that's more than $4,000 between him and his wife.

According to a spokesperson for DES, about 67,200 people have submitted claims through the new PUA portal. This represents the individuals eligible for PUA who are now accessing the system to provide the information needed to confirm their ongoing eligibility and determine benefits.

On Monday, 165,000 people, including Atca, were issued a combined $350 million in PUA benefits. Additional PUA benefits will not be issued until weekly certifications are entered May 17 and claims are processed.

"When the check finally came and we're cashing the check at Chase Bank, and he actually sees that this is happening. We get to go to the grocery store the same day. We're buying some groceries, and he's getting some treats for the first time in a couple of months," said Atca.

To celebrate, he got Robbie a new fishing pole and took him fishing.

Atca says he can't wait to get back to work as soon as schools reopen.

"That's why I do it. I love going to see all these new kids every day. All these new schools. I have so many friends," he said.