by Bryna Koch
Tucson Republican Raking In Almost $3,000/Week ‘Concerned’ About Temporary Extra $600/Week Going to Unemployed Arizonans
Former Republican candidate for the house seat in Congressional District 2 and appointed Commissioner for the Arizona Corporation Commission, Lea Marquez Peterson, seems to hold the same disdain for working families as other prominent politicians.
During a Pima County Workforce Investment Board meeting on Friday May 15, Marquez Peterson, wonders if businesses are having a hard time forcing employees back to work during this dangerous pandemic. This is her chat message sent to meeting attendees, perhaps sent from the safety of her own home:
Certain groups in the leisure and hospitality industry in Arizona and Pima County have been very vocal in supporting re-opening despite public health data that do not show we are in the clear in Arizona. Marquez Peterson is echoing the concerns of Republican leadership at the national and state level seeking to prioritize profit over health. At the Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting on May 13 Republican Supervisor Steve Christy made a similar statement.
Almost 90,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus and the GOP wants to know: “what if workers cannot immediately be forced back to work?”
- They want advice on: “How can we force workers back to work?”
- They are NOT asking: “How can we make sure workers are appropriately paid, have health insurance and paid sick leave, and can trust the health and safety protections their employer will implement?”
- They are NOT asking: “How can we offer certainty in a time of uncertainty?”
Arizona has a reputation for being stingy with unemployment insurance (UI) payments, and this is not by accident. An article from the Phoenix New Times describes how Republicans in the state legislature blocked “an amendment from Democratic State Representative Mitzi Epstein that would have increased the maximum weekly unemployment benefits in Arizona to at least $300, and allow the Department of Economic Security to implement further increases as necessary.” “The move by Republicans… reflects a longstanding trend of rejecting expansions to the state’s unemployment system. Despite inflation, the maximum allowable unemployment benefits have not been increased since 2004, when legislators voted to up the rate from $215 to $240.” Currently, of all of the states, only Mississippi’s max UI is lower than Arizona’s. In contrast, the average national UI payment is $371.88/week. There are proposals out there to fix the limitations in Arizona’s UI system.
To help sustain those who lost their job due to COVID-19, the federal CARES act provides an extra $600/week (for 13 weeks) to unemployment recipients, no matter their states’ regular UI payment. These Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Payments (PUEC), when added to the average national UI payment of $371.88, come to 100% of the average weekly wage in the US. It is structured to replace weekly wages.
This does mean lower wage workers replacement income through PUEC may be more than what they were earning. In Arizona, where leisure and hospitality workers have the lowest average weekly wage compared to other sectors, there may be an increase, for 13 weeks. However, that total amount still puts Arizona in the bottom tier of states. And no low wage worker is getting rich by staying home and collecting unemployment for 13 weeks!
It isn’t even clear relief is getting to workers in our state. The Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) has struggled to distribute PUEC payments. In Arizona, 579,319 unemployment claims (11.6% of the workforce) have been filed.
According to DES, on May 11 they mailed checks to “165,000 individuals who filed an initial claim for benefits between February 2, 2020, and May 2, 2020, and did not meet the criteria for regular UI, but do meet the eligibility criteria for PUA. These individuals will receive an initial payment representing the minimum PUA benefit amount ($117 per week) plus the additional $600 in weekly benefits added by the CARES Act. These first payments will include three-weeks’ worth of benefit.”
That’s only about a third of the 579,319 who filed unemployment claims who received PUEC payments. If, as has been reported, the unemployment rate is at 16%, then a lower percentage of those who are unemployed received the PUEC payments so far.
These payments offer essential financial security to workers and their families during a period of uncertainty. Bills pile up, rent and mortgages are still due. The temporarily increased UI is not a get rich quick scheme. But Republicans like Marquez Peterson default to the stale and racist stereotypes about the “welfare queen” to dissuade people from understanding that social safety nets are essential and will never take the place of work. Marquez Peterson does not see UI as a community benefit, instead she is concerned that the incomes of workers are not precarious enough, thus they cannot be forced back to work in the midst of a public health crisis. Her priority is not individual or family well-being, or even the economic well-being of Southern Arizona (guess what, when families have money, they spend money on necessary goods and services).
It isn’t too much to ask of someone who acts as a community leader that they take into account families’ experiences as they struggle with record unemployment, work to meet their daily needs, and deal with uncertainty about the future. Marquez Peterson should be utilizing her time ensuring workers who are eligible are able to file claims and receive benefits in a timely fashion. She should be working with business owners to identify how they can increase wages, improve health and safety conditions, and offer better benefits to workers. The Workforce Board motto is after all Quality Jobs * Qualified Workers.