Arizonans needing quick unemployment relief find only an overwhelmed system

By: - April 9, 2020 2:20 pm
broken piggy bank unemployment

Public domain photo

On March 20, Meschelle Hornstein was furloughed from her job as a server at a Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport restaurant. It had been five days since she’d worked a shift, as COVID-19 had hammered the travel industry, with airlines slashing the number of flights and would-be travelers staying home.

That same day, Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order designed to allow Arizonans suddenly out of work because of COVID-19 to access unemployment benefits more quickly. One of the key changes was eliminating the requirement that people wait a week before they can receive payments.

The next day, Hornstein struggled to file for unemployment pay. She tried to apply for unemployment insurance online, first on her phone and later on a computer, but the Department of Economic Security website — — kept crashing. 

Finally, she was able to get her application submitted. Hornstein was one of 29,348 Arizonans that week who filed new unemployment claims.

“This whole process is very geared to be difficult for people in need,” Hornstein said over the phone from the Chandler home she shares with her 3-year-old daughter. “It’s been a discouraging experience.”

Scores more have lost their jobs and turned to the state’s unemployment system since then. Last week, DES received more than 129,000 unemployment claims, almost 10 times the previous high point of about 14,000 weekly claims received in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession.

In the three weeks leading up to April 4, more than 247,000 Arizonans had sought unemployment benefits.

Now, despite the executive order aimed at streamlining the system and ensuring those who lost their incomes get needed money soon, DES is saying that applicants should expect to wait 21 days to receive their benefits.

Still, the agency is urging people to apply for unemployment insurance “as soon as they know that their employment and income will be affected by COVID-19.”

“DES is doing everything it can to get Arizonans benefits as soon as possible. However, DES is experiencing a high number of claims due to COVID-19 and processing times could vary,” the agency stated on its website. “Additionally, if there are issues with the claim, such as incomplete information, processing the claim could take up to 21 days.”

Hornstein said she qualified to receive the maximum unemployment benefit in Arizona, which is $240 per week (the second-lowest in the country). After deducting federal income tax, Hornstein said her weekly payment amount is $216. 

On April 7, 16 days she applied for jobless benefits, Honrstein received her first unemployment insurance payment. It accounted for two out of the three weeks she’s been out of work, and totaled $432. 

At her job, Hornstein made an average of $4,000 a month, she said. 

An overwhelmed system and agency

Interim DES Director Tom Betlach has been blunt that his agency is overwhelmed by the demand for unemployment benefits. 

Betlach said the unemployment insurance call center, where people without internet access or those having difficulties with the online site can apply for the program, can sometimes receive up to 70 calls per second. 

He said staffing at the call center has gone from 20 employees to more than 150. 

“We recognize it is still challenging for individuals to get through,” Betlach said. He added DES is working to partner with a private company to expand the call center capacity. 

The DES unemployment call center has received an average of 5,500 calls a day since April 1, said agency spokesman Brett Bezio. In January and February, the call volume daily average was 1,300 calls, he said.

Ducey appointed Betlach on March 20 to lead the agency. Since October, Dr. Cara Christ had been doubling as DES director and head of the Arizona Department of Health Services, which is leading the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Arizona has been under a state of public health emergency over COVID-19 since March 11

While the demand for jobless benefits has surged, payments have not. For the week ending March 14, DES paid $3 million in unemployment benefits, and then a total of $5.5 million for the week ending on April 4 —  an 83% increase. During that same period, the number of unemployment claims filed jumped by about 3,300% in three weeks, from 3,844 to 129,215.

“Our government is not actually set up to help people,” said Brendan Walsh, executive director of Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy, a group that advocates for working families. “As we start getting into two to three weeks that people have been laid off, it’s starting to get pretty scary.”

Walsh said several unions representing hospitality workers put together a food pantry for 500 families on Thursday morning to meet the needs of people feeling the economic impact of the pandemic. 

“There’s so many people that we’ve been talking to who don’t have benefits yet, don’t have paychecks,” he said. 

According to Bezio, the DES spokesman, the state payments don’t reflect the drastic increase in claims because there’s typically a 14-day processing period for payments.

“Ordinarily, claims are processed and paid within 14 days,” Bezio said in an email. “However, we are in unprecedented times, and we appreciate applicants’ patience in processing their claims. DES is doing everything it can to get Arizonans the benefits to which they are entitled quickly and accurately.”

Nationally, more than 17 million people have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks.   

Unemployment applications took 2 weeks to reflect changes

People applying for jobless benefits in Arizona also found a state system that didn’t reflect the changing guidelines for unemployment eligibility at the federal and state levels. 

In Ducey’s March 20 executive order allowing DES to ease requirements for unemployment insurance claims for people impacted by loss of work because of the COVID-19 crisis, changes were made to comply with federal guidelines from March 12 that states eliminate two requirements: one stating that people have to prove they are actively searching for another job, and another that made people wait a week after losing their job to apply for unemployment benefits.

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

  • 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 

The changes applied retroactively to March 11, allowing people who had already been harmed by COVID-19 to qualify for benefits. 

The legislature unanimously passed a bill that put those new guidelines in state law, and Ducey signed it on March 27.

But the DES online application system didn’t reflect those changes until April 2, potentially misleading hundreds of jobless people about the requirements or shutting them out of applying for the program altogether. 

Rep. Charlene Fernandez, a Yuma Democrat, said it’s troubling people applying for benefits had to declare under penalty of perjury that they were looking for jobs even if they weren’t. 

“We have to tell people to answer ‘yes’ and move on to the next question,” she said. “They are not lying, they are following the legislation, because the legislation says that we don’t have to look for work when applying for unemployment insurance under COVID-19.”

She said DES is also working with an antiquated computer system that didn’t allow the agency to quickly update its unemployment program application to reflect the new guidelines. 

Fernandez said she’s been recommending people be persistent when applying for jobless benefits. 

“People will get their money, but it won’t be as seamless,” she said. 

Hornstein said she pulled money from her savings account to pay for half of her $1,100 rent. She’s spent hours on the phone calling banks, student loan lenders and her car insurance company to see if they’ll be lenient about delaying her payment dues. 

With the $432 she received for unemployment, she said she might be able to bring down part of her bills.

“I’ve mostly been focusing on just getting food,” Hornstein said. “I don’t know how people do it… Especially on $240 a week, nobody can live on that.”

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.