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Will state, federal benefits be enough for people unemployed due to COVID-19?

Posted at 6:57 PM, Mar 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-25 22:17:40-04

People from all walks of life are looking for help after losing their jobs due to COVID-19 closures, but many told ABC15 even with help from state and federal governments, they won't have enough to make it through these uncertain times.

According to Dave Wells, the research director at Grand Canyon Institute, a non-partisan think tank, Arizona has the worst unemployment insurance system in the country. Wells said part of the reason is that Arizona has the highest threshold to qualify for benefits.

To receive benefits, a person needs to make a certain amount in a calendar quarter. Minimum earnings required is calculated by multiplying 390 hours time the minimum wage, which is $12 in Arizona. That means a person must make $4,680 a quarter and have at least $7,020 over the entire year to qualify for unemployment insurance.

"We're the only state in the whole country that you could be working at $12 an hour, 25 hours a week and not qualify for benefits. You have to work at least 30 hours a week in Arizona," he said.

RELATED: Unemployment claims reach all-time high in Arizona, expected to increase

In a policy brief published in December 2019, Wells wrote:

"Arizona should change the minimum earnings required to qualify for benefits from earning in a calendar quarter 390 hours times minimum wage (the highest amount in the country) to 260 hours times minimum wage ($3,120 next year) OR alternatively $7,000 over the statutory four-quarter base period (as a minimum annual amount)."

Unemployment Insurance payouts are based on how much the person earned during a specific quarter. The max amount anyone can get is $240 a week. That's the second-lowest cap in the United States, behind Mississippi.

This is a great opportunity for Arizona to be like states like Texas and Utah and adapt a system that is functional. This is a time when this is on people's radars, so let's fix it," said Wells.

Candace Dodd is one of tens of thousands applying for unemployment insurance for the first time. She used to work two jobs, as a server in Ahwatukee and a bartender at the Hilton Pointe in Phoenix. She's a single mother and takes care of her 18-year-old son.

"Realizing the reality and then you're just back to rock bottom. You try to stay afloat, and try to look for the positive," said Dodd.

Staying afloat for Dodd means getting help from the state, though she knows the payout is low.

"I don't know that many people that can survive off of that alone," she said.

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The $2 trillion federal relief package would help. Under the plan, individuals who earn $75,000 or less in adjusted gross income would get direct payments of $1,200 each, with married couples earning up to $150,000 receiving $2,400.

An additional $500 per child will be included.

The payment would scale down as income rises, phasing out entirely at $99,000 for singles and $198,000 for couples without children.

Ninety-percent of Americans would be eligible to receive full or partial payments, according to estimates by the Tax Policy Center.

Dodd said every cent helps, but not for long.

"So $1,200 would basically cover your bills for the month and keep you afloat, but then what does next month going to present?" said Dodd.

The stimulus package would also expand unemployment insurance with an additional $600 a week for four months to those who get state unemployment benefits.

Wells said because there are many who don't make enough to qualify for benefits in Arizona, those who need it the most still won't get that help.

"That's the loophole group I'm really concerned about," said Wells.

Learn more about applying for unemployment insurance.