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Our View: Jobless benefits: New law brings attention to other needed changes

August 4, 2018

Yesterday marked the beginning of a very bad time to be unemployed in Arizona.

A new law changed the criteria for receiving unemployment benefits. It essentially gives recipients a maximum of four weeks of unemployment checks if they don’t accept almost any job offered that pays at least 20 percent more than unemployment benefits.

Arizona’s maximum weekly benefit is $240 per week. Twenty percent more than that is $288. Or about 29 hours of work at minimum wage.

The strategy of the new law is sound: Get people off the dole and back in the work force.

When unemployment is low and jobs are plentiful, as is currently the case, the idea is very sound. It doesn’t require someone to take a $288 per week job. It does require them to get off the couch and find work.

The new law, though, exposes weaknesses in the state’s unemployment benefits stemming from the low amount paid in unemployment benefits. Arizona’s weekly payments appear to be three dollars per week more than Mississippi’s, the lowest in the country.

Is that a bad thing? If cost is the top concern, then no. If helping people move on to new employment without needing to rob banks to buy groceries is the goal, then $240 per week is pretty bad.

In the Great Recession, the unemployment rate in Arizona leaped into double digits and thousands of workers went without paychecks.

It was during that time that the phrase “looking for a job is a full time job” came into common usage. Being forced to take a low-paying job during normal business (hiring) hours is counterproductive.

Arizona’s unemployment laws an benefits are crafted around the notion that only ne’er-do-wells and the lazy seek unemployment benefits. In times of high unemployment, that’s especially not true.

Arizona faces a workforce challenge. There simply aren’t enough qualified applicants to fill the available jobs. Part of that reason, we suspect, are the high numbers of workers who left the state during the recession to find work.

Had more of them been able to stick around, the state’s economy would be even better right now.

That’s where higher unemployment benefits pay off in the long term. It’s why lawmakers should consider changing the benefit levels based on unemployment rates, with more paid during times of high unemployment.

Paying for it? The state should be collecting a surplus right now, given the low unemployment. Make that surplus the rainy day account to raise benefits when the job situation isn’t as rosy.

— Today’s News-Herald

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