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Why is Arizona behind other states in paying PUA benefits?

Posted at 9:43 PM, Apr 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-29 14:24:16-04

MARICOPA, AZ — Substitute teacher Heather McCluskie of Maricopa has been filling in for teachers in the Valley for 16 years.

It's a position that doesn't net her enough salary to qualify for regular unemployment, so she's counting on money from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program that is slated to start the week of May 12.

But like so many other part-time, freelance, self-employed and gig-economy workers that have contacted ABC15, she says the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) is telling her to keep filing every week but can't say if she's really eligible.

"Six weeks later, that's kind of what I get. We'll just see what happens. Keep doing this and we'll just see what happens," she says.

So what's taking so long? The answer is complicated.

After being signed into law on March 27, DES had to wait for guidance from the US Department of Labor. That came on April 5.

Arizona Congressman David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, says the legislation required a lot of state government in a short amount of time.

"We (Congress) put a lot of burden on the state to try and get their computer systems, get their methodology, get their mechanisms working," he said.

He also said states had to start from scratch because the program is brand new.

Still, some two-dozen states had at least begun processing PUA applications by April 15. Some states including Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi are well ahead of Arizona in paying out PUA funds.

Economist Christopher O'Leary with Upjohn Institute for Employment Research tells ABC15 that could be because PUA is closely modeled after the federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance program. And natural disaster-prone states already have the systems in place to pay out benefits for workers who are traditionally ineligible.

Arizona had to hire contractor Geographic Solutions to design software for its program. But the software shortcomings don't explain the use of old technology for DES functions.

Heather shared a call log with us that showed she made 90 calls to DES in one day hoping to get through.

"And the fact that they're still using faxes," she said, as an example of other outdated technology.

DES acknowledge the system is overwhelmed.

But Congressman Ruben Gallego (D-Phoenix) who is also a former state representative from 2011 until 2014, says the DES system was broken long before the pandemic.

"When I was in statehouse we asked for more money for DES to upgrade their technology. They're working on 1970s technology. They should've done this a while ago. But it is the belief of the Republican legislature that the harder it is for people to apply for unemployment, the better it is because that encourages them to look for work. But that doesn't work during a pandemic," he said.

"It's like they're trying as difficult as they can to weed out as many people as they can," Heather said.

But at this point, she says she really has no choice but to wait and hope for the best.

"I'm hoping that there'll be something. But not knowing when and where and how much and how long. It's all very frustrating," she said.