Arizona’s unemployment benefits are pitiful. Will voters demand a change?

Jobless workers demonstrate in Miami Springs in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As an Arizonan, I’ve become accustomed to my state placing near the very bottom on important measures of a state’s long-term health and stability, such as education and childhood poverty levels. So it’s no surprise that our state is nearly dead last in terms of unemployment benefits.

But I wonder: Could Arizonans finally be ready to turn things around and put the “worst in nation” ratings behind us?

Through no fault of their own, more than 1.6 million Arizonans weathering our pandemic-ravaged economy have found themselves either unemployed or underemployed, facing multiple furloughs or suddenly thrust into part-time work.

When it comes to shared pain, we are truly “in this together,” and it’s in that togetherness that voters might finally realize the importance of electing officials who will fund a safety net.

Despite what Gov. Doug Ducey says, Arizona’s unemployment benefit woes are not the fault or responsibility of the federal government. Rather, this hardship is the direct result of the decisions made by our state leaders, the ones we elected to the Legislature and governor’s office.

States have incredible flexibility on how they run unemployment insurance, including the ability to determine how large — or in Arizona’s case, how small — to fix maximum benefits and determine eligibility.

As a general rule, maximum benefits should be approximately half of what the average worker makes. Here in Arizona, our $240 weekly max benefit is less than one-fourth of our state’s average wage.

Nationally, we have the second worst unemployment benefit in the country, better only than Mississippi’s maximum benefit of $235.

Compared to our neighbors, we’re doing even worse.

Nevada, New Mexico, California, Colorado, and Utah offer benefits that are nearly or more than double Arizona’s. If you want to live in the Southwest, Arizona is definitely not the place to be when a recession hits.

Out of work Arizonans are expected to make ends meet the same way they did in 2004, the last time benefits were raised.

If only the price of rent was the same as 2004. Or food. Or healthcare. Or most anything else. Had it kept pace with inflation, our unemployment aid would be $329. 

According to the non-profit organization USAFacts, an individual living in Maricopa County needs $2,373 each month to afford rent, food and transportation. That’s two-and-a-half times the maximum monthly unemployment benefit (which not everyone qualifies for) and doesn’t include money for anything outside of those three items.

In addition to low benefits, our state also has the nation’s lowest earnings allowance.

Making as little as $30 per week means a reduction in benefits. Compare that to Georgia where the governor recently expanded the earnings exemption to $300 per week, which allows residents to supplement unemployment with some part-time work.

It makes no sense — financially or morally — to leave workers who have lost their jobs with little more than a thread to hold on to, especially during a pandemic-caused recession when work is difficult or nearly impossible to find in numerous industries.

Those downplaying the importance of unemployment assistance seem to forget that money goes right back into our economy. We need those dollars during a recession, but when those checks are so paltry that they cannot even cover the basics, such as rent and groceries, it creates a domino effect.

The result is more bankruptcies, more homelessness, more food insecurity — the very things that can worsen a recession and delay a recovery.

Ducey has stated that we cannot increase unemployment benefits during a pandemic because “we don’t have the ability to print money.” 

But that argument fails to note that states are allowed to borrow money from the Treasury after a state’s own unemployment funds are depleted.

As recently noted by the Grand Canyon Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, Arizona has borrowed from the feds before, most recently during the Great Recession. According to GCI, the cost to employers to repay that loan amounted to “an additional $84 per covered employee over two years.”

That doesn’t seem like a huge burden, especially if it means keeping more people in their homes and more money flowing in our local economies.

The governor has made it clear that he does not intend to address unemployment benefits by calling the Legislature into a special session, which means Arizonans will need to wait until next year for their elected officials to act.

Will the Legislature be filled with representatives who want to increase benefits or those who will punt on the issue yet again?

That decision will be made by the voters in November. Let’s hope we all choose wisely.

Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.