Months Into the Pandemic, Frustration And Fear Persist For Out-Of-Work Arizonans

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 8:13am

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Sandy Villatoro
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Laid-off hotel worker Sandy Villatoro attends a demonstration with her 10-month-old daughter. Villatoro is receiving just $214 per week in unemployment insurance now that additional funding from the CARES Act has expired.

Sandy Villatoro worked at a downtown Phoenix hotel until she was laid off in March. The hotel tells her it’ll rehire her, but her return-to-work date just keeps getting pushed back.

“We thought this was only going to last a month, maybe two months," Villatoro said.

After months of relying on unemployment insurance, Villatoro and her family are getting anxious. 

“I've worked since I was 17," Villatoro said. "I’ve never been out of work longer than like two months maybe." 

It’s been more than five months since Arizona’s stay-at-home order lifted. Many businesses have reopened and many jobs have come back. But many, like Villatoro's, have not. And the thousands of Arizonans who have been unemployed long-term are struggling. Jobless Arizonans report challenges finding new work, bureaucratic hang-ups when trying to file for unemployment insurance, and difficulty getting by on the state's low unemployment payments. 

More than 400,000 people are claiming unemployment benefits in Arizona. The state typically allows someone to claim benefits for 26 weeks, but the CARES Act opened up an extra 13 weeks in Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

That PEUC benefit is now being paid to more than 30,000 Arizonans, meaning all those people have been unemployed six months or more. For some workers who exhaust all that, Arizona is also allowing an additional 13 weeks. More than 2,000 Arizonans are now receiving that Extended Benefit, meaning they’ve been unemployed more than nine months.

Kat Fury has been notified she’s nearing the end of her extra PEUC benefits — she lost her job at a mechanic shop in early March. She’s looked for other work, but hasn’t found anything.

“Jobs that you once had 50 people, 100 people applying, now thousands are applying, so good luck even getting an interview.”
— Kat Fury

“Jobs that you once had 50 people, 100 people applying, now thousands are applying, so good luck even getting an interview," Fury said. 

It’s not just getting a new job that’s a challenge. Months into the pandemic, many Arizonans still report problems getting unemployment benefits.

Arizona’s Department of Economic Security added hundreds of workers to help process the surge of claims that came along with the pandemic. The department has been answering more than 7,000 phone calls per week. But delays persist. As of mid-October, DES reported more than 2,700 people had been waiting three weeks or longer for their initial claim to even be reviewed.

Some workers who were initially approved for benefits are also reporting long delays getting issues resolved with their accounts. 

Tony Greer had been a ride share driver. He said when his work dried up in the spring he wasn’t able to make car payments and he lost his vehicle. He got Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — the program for freelancers and self-employed workers — but he said his payments stopped coming nearly 18 weeks ago and he can’t get answers from DES.

“I’ve talked to them every week, I’ve gone online, I’ve sent emails to no response,” Greer said. 

Taelor Tsutsulupa and her husband both lost their jobs. Her payments have come through, but his stopped weeks ago. She said they call DES every day just trying to find out why.

DES Office
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
An office for the Department of Economic Security.

“On top of not being able to pay the bills, no money, no jobs, and then dealing with that, it’s just horrible," Tsutsulupa said. 

She said even though she’s receiving aid, it’s not enough for their family. The additional $600 per week The CARES Act provided for unemployment claims ran out months ago. And Arizona’s maximum unemployment payment of $240 per week is the nation’s second-lowest — the equivalent of $6 an hour.

“My unemployment, it doesn’t even equal up to the rent, and even though we have that eviction order in process, our landlord still charges daily late fees," Tsutsulupa said. 

Villatoro is also feeling the strain of surviving on unemployment payments. After taxes, she receives $214 of the maximum $240 payments. She said she tries to stretch that any way she can for herself and her kids.

“It’s really hard to choose between diapers for her and, like keeping her in the diaper a little bit longer so she can last a little longer in the diaper," Villatoro said. 

When hundreds of thousands of people are falling behind on bills or making those household budget compromises, the ripple effect is far-reaching said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

“It’s really bad for the economy, but it does seem like there’s very little chance anything will happen before the election," Shierholz said. 

Shierholz said with Congress stalled on a relief package, the cutoffs for CARES Act unemployment programs and the federal eviction moratorium are quickly approaching.

“We’re going to blink our eyes and we’ll be there,” Shierholz said.  

Unemployment benefits
Christina Van Otterloo/KJZZ
A guide to Arizona unemployment benefits.

Brett Bezio, with DES said some Arizonans will be able to claim the state’s Extended Benefits after the end of the year, but unless Congress takes action, many will stop receiving assistance. 

“It’s a hard expiration Dec. 26, so even if they haven’t used up their 13 weeks of PEUC or their 39 weeks of PUA, they would not be able to continue filing claims at that time," Bezio said. 

Fury said she’s already dipped into her savings. And she’s not sure what she’ll do when unemployment benefits stop coming.

Like so many other jobless Arizonans, she said she's worried, “I just can’t understand how they think people are surviving during this." 

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