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A quarter-million Arizonans lost their jobs in just 3 weeks. Their lifeboat isn’t quite ready yet.

State agency racing to deal with expanded benefits as unemployed workers flood phone lines

PHOENIX — The losses are staggering: In the last three weeks, 250,000 Arizonans have lost their jobs as the coronavirus shutdown decimates entire industries.

But the lifeboat is still coming together. 

Just 10 days after President Trump signed a $2 trillion rescue package, the Arizona agency that manages jobless benefits is staffing up and overhauling its computer systems to accommodate Congress’ massive benefits expansion.

It’s been a bumpy start for people seeking benefits – long waits on the phone with DES without getting the answers they wanted. But late Monday, the agency reported progress.

Here’s what you need to know:

JOB LOSSES: About 130,000 people filed their first claim for jobless benefits last week, DES reported Monday. The filings have spiked from 30,000 three weeks ago to 90,000 a week later. 

For much of the last year, a typical week saw just 3,000 to 4,000 claims in one of the country’s best-performing economies.

By this time next week, the state will likely have lost more than 300,000 jobs – 1 in every 10 workers cast out. During the Great Recession, Arizona lost that many jobs, but over the course of three years.

RELATED: Laid off because of coronavirus? Here's how to apply for unemployment in Arizona

WHAT ARE THE NEW BENEFITS? Congress’ CARES Act is designed as a life-preserver for jobless Americans, until an anticipated economic rebound:

- It boosts Arizona’s $240-a-week jobless benefit - second-lowest in the country - to $840 a week, through July.

- It recognizes the cogs of the new economy: the self-employed, contract workers and gig workers. They are all eligible for benefits for the first time. Workers on temporary furloughs are also eligible.  

Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature waived Arizona’s one-week waiting period for benefits, as well as the requirement that benefit recipients demonstrate they’re looking for work.  

RELATED: Millions of Americans will soon get stimulus checks. But here's who won't.

WHY THE SLOW START? It’s only been 10 days since the CARES Act was signed. All those changes and more are a lot to digest for DES.

People seeking benefits told 12 News they were better acquainted with the new law than DES reps on the phone.

Independent contractors, in particular, reported problems.

DES spokesman Brett Bezio says there are now more than 150 people at its call centers to process claims, up from just 13 a few weeks ago. 

DES reported taking one step forward Monday.

Computers are being updated to handle the additional $600 payment for unemployment insurance. Those payments could begin going out by next week.

But DES still must review Labor Department guidance on the new groups of workers eligible for the benefits.

“Implementation of this provision will require significant system changes,” DES said. 

It’s still awaiting guidance on how put into place the new 13-week benefits extension, for people who exhaust their benefits.

BEST ADVICE: Applying for jobless benefits can be a slow, intensely bureaucratic process. 

This one has the added complication that the rules have changed. 

Read all the materials, understand the rules as best you can, and know that the DES rep at the other end of the line may have just learned those rules, too.

Here's where you can read more

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