Senate passes bill to cut unemployment benefits
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Senate Republicans want to slash the number of weeks an individual can receive unemployment payments and tie the length of benefit availability to the unemployment rate, but critics say that even if jobs are plentiful, it can still be a long process to find a good one.
Currently, Arizonans who qualify for unemployment can receive up to 24 weeks of benefits when the unemployment rate is 5% or less. The proposal by Phoenix Republican Sen. Steve Kaiser would slash that time in half, to 12 weeks, if the previous quarter’s unemployment rate was 5% or less.
The measure, Senate Bill 1167, cleared the Arizona Senate on March 2 by a vote of 16-14, along party lines. It next moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
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If it becomes law, the bill calls for incremental increases in the length of benefits, based on the previous quarter’s unemployment rate. It would add two weeks of payments for every half-percentage point increase in the unemployment rate until it reached 20 weeks for an unemployment rate of 8.5%.
Under existing law, those who qualify for unemployment payments can receive up to 26 weeks of benefits if the unemployment rate is greater than 5%. The unemployment rate in Arizona in December was 4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We have 10 open jobs for every one applicant,” Kaiser told senators on March 1 when the bill was debated. “We’ve got a massive labor participation problem. There are a lot of folks that could benefit from getting a job.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics also reported that around 146,000 people in Arizona were unemployed in December, while there were 213,000 job openings. Kaiser’s numbers don’t match up with that, but he clarified that he was basing his comment on the 22,600 people actively applying for unemployment in Arizona.
Democratic Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, of Coal Mine Canyon, said she opposed the bill because she doesn’t believe it serves rural areas of the state that might have significantly higher unemployment rates than Phoenix or Tucson.
“They don’t have the luxury of having vacancies left and right,” Hatathlie said during the March 2 vote.
In December, Phoenix’s unemployment rate was 2.7%, while Yuma’s was 13.7%.
Democratic Sen. Mitzi Epstein told her colleagues that this bill had the potential to hurt the economy because it could force highly skilled professionals who have been laid off to take lower-paying jobs than they are qualified for out of desperation because their unemployment benefits are running out.
She added that it didn’t make sense to her to cut someone’s benefits because there were plenty of jobs available a few months ago.
“What matters is, are there jobs to be found now?” Epstein said.
Kaiser said he did not consult an economist when writing the bill.
And he suggested that it would benefit skilled professionals to take minimum wage jobs, instead of relying on unemployment payments, while they continue to seek work that better suits their qualifications. He added that he believes minimum wage jobs often have flexible hours that would allow the person to easily continue their job search.
Sen. Brian Fernandez, D-Yuma, answered that he’s worked in tech for most of his adult life and that the application process for many of those jobs can be drawn out and grueling. The process can take months, with numerous logical and diagnostic tests. He added that it would be difficult to go through that sort of intensive application process while also holding down a minimum wage job, many of which don’t have the flexible schedules Kaiser claimed.
Sometimes, a tech firm might give an applicant a day’s notice before a three-hour test, something that would be challenging to accommodate while also working full time, Fernandez said.
“Applying for work on that level is a full-time job,” he said.
Kaiser and some of his Republican colleagues repeatedly reminded critics that a minimum wage job pays more in Arizona than unemployment benefits. The state’s maximum unemployment benefit now caps out at $320 per week, while Arizona’s minimum wage increased at the start of the year to $13.85 per hour, which amounts to $554 per week for 40 hours of work.
Democratic Sen. Eva Burch, of Mesa, said it can be equally time consuming to apply for work in the health care industry.
Burch, who is a nurse practitioner, said she put in 50-100 applications while she was looking for work, and spent all day, every day, on her job search before she was hired.
“I’m not convinced this is practical for professionals who have to dig in and do a lot of work to apply,” Burch said, adding that it would have taken her a lot longer to find a job that fit her skills if she was also working a full-time job during her search.
But Kaiser said his Democratic colleagues were forgetting how easy it would be to get their preferred schedule at a minimum wage job and to get time off for interviews.
“It’s better for the individual to have a job while they apply for jobs,” he said.
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