Arizona Democrats are demanding that Governor Doug Ducey and state officials take immediate action to fix the state's unemployment benefits system, which has been plagued by problems since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn.
In a letter dated September 9 that was sent to Ducey and Michael Wisehart, director of the Department of Economic Security (DES), the agency that administers unemployment benefits, leaders in the state House and Senate Democratic caucuses wrote that their offices are "inundated with panicked messages from Arizonans" who are struggling to get unemployment benefits, despite qualifying for them during the pandemic, and are "unable to get answers" from DES.
"While DES has reportedly disbursed greater than $10 billion as of August 29, 2020, there are many Arizona families who DES has approved as eligible, who are suffering destabilizing events due to DES' inability to issue a single payment benefit," the letter states. "Arizona is in the midst of an exceptional public health and economic crisis, with a notable secondary effect in the form of a public trust deficit."
"Tens of thousands of hard-working, taxpaying Arizonans have been unable to access the UI Division to seek the economic resources they have been approved for and which they need to survive. Many are still awaiting their first benefit payment," the letter goes on to state. "This is unacceptable. As a result, our legislative offices have received an influx of dire cries for help, unexpectedly becoming a de facto back channel to access the UI office of DES. We are deeply concerned about Arizona families, especially single moms, minorities, low-income wage earners, those without computer or technological access, and those in rural areas, who are disproportionately impacted by a loss of income."
The problems with DES' unemployment benefits operation have been well documented. Back in July, Phoenix New Times reported on how numerous Arizonans who qualified for state and federal unemployment benefits during the pandemic had received little to no money. Many expressed frustration with their inability to get DES staff on the phone to answer questions or address their concerns. Earlier in the summer, DES also froze thousands of accounts due to suspected fraud. And new claims are piling up.
In their letter, Arizona Democrats call on Ducey and Wisehart to immediately provide "interim payments" to people eligible for benefits who have "unresolved claims for greater than 30 days." They also want an outsourced investigation into the alleged fraud, and "working session" with House and Senate Democrats to establish a task force to develop a plan to clear the "backlog of unresolved claims" and make DES more transparent to the public.
They also called for a host of other actions, including better staffing for DES' hotline and claim adjudication division, funding to modernize DES' computer system, regular public briefings on DES' operations, and data about claims that were denied unemployment benefits.
"Our shared priority is to make sure that all Arizonans are financially secure and can trust their government to deliver in a timely and reliable manner the emergency assistance they need to stay afloat during these uncertain times," the letter adds. "It is critical that our constituents receive immediate access to lifeline monetary benefits, direct and effective communication from DES, and further that the public be informed of the actions being made to protect the financial well-being of our citizens and our state."
Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for Ducey, did not respond to New Times' request for comment. In an email, Brett Bezio, a spokesperson for DES, wrote that the agency has received the letter and is “currently reviewing it."
The letter also included the stories of several Arizonans who have been unable to get benefits or answers from DES, such as a member of the Navajo Nation from Window Rock who has made daily attempts between July and August to resolve her claim with no success. Her benefits were allegedly "cancelled with no explanation" when she got caught up in DES' crackdown on fraud. In another story, a previously self-employed realtor applied for pandemic unemployment benefits in April but has been unable to get benefits or assistance from DES, and has since been "advised to declare bankruptcy."
Dave Wells, research director at the Grand Canyon Institute, an Arizona-based non-partisan policy think-tank that has published research on how the state's unemployment benefits system is one of the worst in the nation, said that people whose claims are still in limbo will likely lose out on the temporary $300 weekly benefits that President Donald Trump issued with an executive order, which are slated to end soon.
"People who are still on hold, the people who are still trying to work through it, they may not get those $300 dollar checks," he said. "There’s no money that’s held aside for people who are in limbo waiting for claims to be lifted."
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Wells added that the state's issues with alleged fraud and subsequent crackdown have wreaked havoc on people with legitimate claims for benefits.
"For whatever reason, Arizona had more issues with potential claim fraud," he said. "That’s created problems because Arizona put a lot of people on hold who had legitimate claims."
Read the full letter below: