Workers worry unemployment benefits don’t fit the COVID-19 economy

By: - March 24, 2020 2:50 pm

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It was about noon this past Friday when Maria Valdez received a call from her boss.

Valdez had been out of work since March 7. She said all of the events planned for the downtown Phoenix Sheraton Hotel, where she had worked for eight years as a banquet server, had been canceled. But she was still employed, though unpaid, and that gave her comfort. 

The Friday call was to tell her she was being laid off, like hundreds of other Arizonans facing the economic impact from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I felt very sad, because I’ve never been laid off from a job,” Valdez said over the phone from her Peoria home. “I sat down to pray and ask God for this situation to pass as quickly as possible. This is a situation where we have nowhere to run.” 

Valdez earns the highest income in her five-member household, she said. Her husband works as a janitor for the City of Peoria, and is still working sanitizing the city’s recreation centers. Her 21-year-old son stopped working in concessions because he is diabetic, a condition that puts him at high risk of falling severely ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

For more than two weeks, Valdez has been using her savings to pay for her family’s expenses. But she worries her funds will run dry soon. She’s unsure about how she’s going to buy food and pay her mortgage, car payment and water and electric bills.

“I’ve never been unemployed, I’ve been here for many years and always have had a job. There’s always a place you can go to, but now, I don’t know. It’s not like there’s another restaurant or hotel that’s open,” she said. 

On Sunday, she submitted her unemployment insurance application with the state Department of Economic Security, she said. 

The Arizona Republic reported Monday that some 30,000 Arizonans filed for jobless benefits for the first time last week, a roughly 700% increase over the prior week.

Nationally, there was a 30% week-to-week increase in the number of unemployment insurance claims filed between the first week and second week of March, according to Department of Labor data, as states and cities across the country began implementing policies aimed at blunting the spread of the coronavirus and as tourism ground to a halt as people cut back on nonessential travel.

A Goldman Sachs analysis estimates that new uninsurance claims filings nationally might increase from 281,000 to a record-breaking 2.25 million this week.  

Unemployment insurance programs are meant to give workers a cushion while they search for employment. In Arizona, unemployment benefits payments range between $187 and $240 per week, for up to 26 weeks.  

Valdez said unemployment benefits will help, but she worries it won’t be enough. Like many hospitality workers, Valdez works long hours from January through May to save up for the slow summer months. On average, she estimated she makes around $30 an hour in the springtime.

“I don’t have enough (to pay) for April’s bills, and I don’t have any money saved,” she said. “Instead of saving up, I’m going to have debts.”

Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers have eased requirements for who can receive unemployment benefits from the state in line with new federal rules. But without increasing the cap on weekly payments, some worry this expansion might not be enough to secure the economic wellbeing of thousands of workers. 

Arizona adds flexibility to unemployment benefits

On March 12, the federal government eased rules for states on unemployment insurance programs to allow workers impacted by the COVID-19 spread and precautionary measures to qualify for unemployment benefits. On March 18, as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Congress approved $1 billion to help states process and cover unemployment insurance claims. To receive that funding, states are required to relax prerequisites for applying for unemployment benefits. 

On March 20, Ducey issued an executive order allowing DES to ease requirements for unemployment insurance claims for people impacted by loss of work because of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The changes allow people to no longer have to wait a week after losing their job to apply for unemployment benefits, and waive proof that they are actively searching for another job to receive unemployment benefits.

Ducey’s order also makes the following people eligible for unemployment benefits:

  • People who have reduced hours at work or whose place of employment closed due to COVID-19 precautions
  • People who are in quarantine because of COVID-19
  • People who have to care for a family member with COVID-19 

AZ changes ‘not enough’ for COVID-19

Brendan Walsh, state political director with UNITE Here Local 11 — a union representing hospitality and airport workers — said Ducey’s steps are important, but not enough. 

“We need to get aid to people as soon as possible. But it is not enough,” he said in an email. “Arizona’s unemployment’s benefits are the lowest in the nation. They max out at $240/week, or 1/2 of a minimum-wage worker’s weekly pay. The governor and Legislature need to raise that cap immediately.”

Arizona ranks No. 50 in the nation for unemployment aid among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The only state that gives less is Mississippi.

Walsh said the weekly cap should be raised and qualification threshold lowered permanently.

He explained that hospitality workers, like Valdez, work overtime during the spring months which is the high season for many state industries to save up for the slower summer time, when they work a few hours. Ducey’s action doesn’t account for that, Walsh said, since it only covers COVID-19 related impacts. 

A Democratic lawmaker tried to add more changes to unemployment benefits legislation before the session went on hiatus Monday afternoon. 

Rep. Mitzi Epstein of Phoenix had a proposal to increase the $240 weekly compensation cap to $300 and extend the time people can receive this state benefit from 26 weeks to 52 weeks. Her measure failed. 

Instead, legislators unanimously passed a measure that allows the Department of Economic Security to establish an alternative unemployment insurance benefit eligibility and employer contribution requirements for people and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 spread and prevention.

On its website, DES also said it’s developing an application for people specifically affected by COVID-19 and working to update its eligibility requirements, but gave no timeline for when those changes will be in place. 

“DES will provide maximum flexibility when evaluating eligibility to assist individuals affected by COVID-19 while still meeting federal requirements,” the agency stated on its website

Still, DES is urging people to apply as soon as possible. 

All unemployment insurance applications are submitted online at People without internet access can call 877-600-2722.

Valdez said all 21 of her co-workers were laid off. In a group message, they shared a sense of desolation, she said. Some texted, “It was a pleasure to work with you all.”

“Your work, the people around you, they become like a second family,” she said. 

Valdez said she wants government leaders to consider more policies to not only help companies impacted by the health crisis, but also workers. 

“Don’t leave communities behind, don’t allow for the communities to feel alone. Make sure that the people feel like they’re being helped,” she said.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.