'I Can't Live on $240 a Week': Arizona Workers Are Asking for More Unemployment Benefits

Meschelle Hornstein was laid off from her job at the airport in March. She worries about providing for herself and her daughter when federal assistance runs out at the end of the month.
Meschelle Hornstein was laid off from her job at the airport in March. She worries about providing for herself and her daughter when federal assistance runs out at the end of the month. CASE/Victoria Stahl

What happens in the next few months will make a big difference for Meschelle Hornstein and her 3-year-old daughter, Noah.

Hornstein, who has worked in Phoenix restaurants for nearly 17 years, was furloughed from her job at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in March. She's been surviving on unemployment, but she's worried about the end of the month, when federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance expires.

When that happens, people collecting unemployment in Arizona will see their benefits drop by $600 to $240 weekly. Hornstein has some savings, but with medical issues and her kid's father also furloughed, she expects those to soon run out.

"I've never not been able to provide for myself or for her," she said.

Usually, there are plenty of bars and restaurants looking for employees, she's found, but even with a culinary degree, the places she's tried to apply to have said they're not looking to hire anyone right now.

Sandy Villatoro is also concerned. She worked nights at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Phoenix for five years before she was furloughed. Her husband is still working, but it's not enough with two kids and the medical bills from giving birth last year still hanging over her.

"It's not cheap living here," she said. "...Especially with two kids."

With those concerns in mind, Villatoro and Hornstein joined a socially distanced car protest organized by Unite Here at the state capitol today to ask Governor Doug Ducey to expand state unemployment benefits.

"Insurance Ahora!!" read the window of one car as they drove in circles around the capitol, horns blaring.

Unite Here spokesperson Rachel Sulkes estimated that around 50 people attended. The labor union, which represents hospitality workers in Phoenix, coordinated the protest with pro-labor group Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy. She said it was important to get workers' stories out and "to realize [COVID-19 is] not touching everybody the same way."

Protesters' key demands were raising the maximum weekly unemployment benefits to $490, and the amount that someone could earn and still qualify for benefits to $300.

Currently, Arizonans on unemployment can receive up to $240 a week, plus the additional $600 in federal aid, said Brett Bezio, a spokesperson for the state Department of Employment Security. Anyone making more than $30.50 a week — slightly over 2.5 hours of work at minimum wage — would be unavailable for federal assistance for that week and have the amount they made deducted from their state benefits.

Part of the goal of the changes would be to allow hospitality workers to still get benefits while working part-time as the industry recovers, protestors said.

"We're hard-working people. We don't expect a handout," said Villatoro, who expects to remain furloughed from the Sheraton through October.

The other goal is to help protect people who don't want to return to potentially unsafe work environments.

Flora Garcia works for Arizona State University's dining contractor and is worried about going back because she has a pre-existing condition. It took her two months to get unemployment, and she said the state should expand benefits for people like her and other families who need them.

"We're very important employees to the state," she said through a translator.

Sulkes said the union is bracing for the end of the month when the expiration of federal aid coincides with the end of the state moratorium on evictions. She said it's incumbent on the state to find the money to expand benefits because, otherwise, they're asking people to risk their lives to restore the economy, she said.

"This just can't be the answer, that you should risk dying to go back to work," she said.

click to enlarge Protesters called on the governor to increase the $240 weekly cap on unemployment benefits. - CASE/VICTORIA STAHL
Protesters called on the governor to increase the $240 weekly cap on unemployment benefits.
CASE/Victoria Stahl
State data shows that as of July 4, over 556,000 Arizonans were receiving federal unemployment benefits, and over 321,000 were receiving state benefits, for a total of $722 million disbursed weekly. The average number of new weekly claims has quintupled over last year.

A CNBC analysis found that Arizona had the lowest weekly minimum benefit amount of any state besides Mississippi, Louisiana, or Alabama.

Hornstein, who since being furloughed has also lobbied the city to require her employer to offer assistance with their health insurance in exchange for rent relief, said the next few months will be crucial for her.

"I'm trying to be hopeful, but it's a really bleak outlook right now," she said.

UPDATE: The governor's office didn't initially respond to a request for comment, but released this statement several hours later, attributed to spokesperson Patrick Ptak:

"We want to make sure that Arizonans who have been hurt financially by the pandemic have resources and assistance available to them. We’re closely monitoring activity at the federal level that could affect unemployment compensation. To date, Arizona has paid out $5.7 billion through over 15 million initial and continued claims since early March. We’ve also allocated more than $440 million to local governments; $270 million to schools and school districts; $5 million for homeless shelters; $5 million for eviction assistance; $1.75 million to enhance food security; and millions more for other efforts to protect our most vulnerable, in addition to millions in grants to local nonprofits through the Coronavirus Relief Fund."
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter