Jobless in Ariz. begin to fret as U.S. aid runs out

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The Arizona Republic
By: Jahna Berry
June 26, 2010

Tens of thousands of jobless Arizonans may have to seek food stamps and other welfare safety-net programs after the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits, state officials say.

The defeat of the legislation by Senate Republicans on Thursday is an immediate blow to nearly 38,000 Arizonans who had qualified for extended unemployment benefits and were relying on Congress to pass a bill that would have funded already-expired payments.

The vote, which failed to end a GOP filibuster of the Democrats' bill, will eventually impact most of the 157,871 Arizonans currently getting unemployment payments, state officials say.
Nationally, unemployment benefits will phase out for more than 200,000 people a week.

The defeated bill would have provided up to $16 billion in aid to states, including tax breaks for businesses. Senate Republicans argued that the plan added $33 billion to the national debt.

Under the current system, Arizona's jobless can get up 26 weeks of state benefits, plus as much as 73 additional weeks of extended federal aid, said Steve Meissner, director of communications for the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

If nothing changes, all new Arizona unemployment applicants will get only the state benefits, which go up to a maximum of $240 a week.

The end of federal funding for extended unemployment benefits is a big setback for thousands of people who lost their jobs in the Great Recession and are having a tough time finding work in a state where the unemployment rate is stubbornly stuck near 9.6 percent.

The hardest-hit are people who have been out of work the longest and have typically already exhausted savings, as well as help from friends and family, Meissner said.

Phoenix resident Craig Scheibel's jobless benefits ran out weeks ago, and the 63-year-old relies on Social Security to pay his rent and bills while looking for work. Other than a temporary stint working for the U.S. Census Bureau, he has been out of work for a year.

He'd rather not depend on unemployment, but it has been tough to find work because employers are reluctant to hire older workers, Scheibel said.

Kris Sullivan, 52, of Phoenix, depends on the federally extended benefits. She is unsure if she will get another weekly $237 payment.

"I have no idea what I will do. It's just very scary," said Sullivan, a former sales rep for an occupational health-care provider. She has been out of work since 2007.

"I am no different than so many other people," she said. "You constantly send out resumes, and no one responds."

DES officials urged recipients who would normally qualify for the federal jobless benefits to continue to file for unemployment, in case Congress later approves retroactive aid.

On Friday, Democratic officials said the House may try to revive the long-stalled jobless-aid bill next week as a stand-alone bill shorn of tax-and-spending provisions that prompted Senate Republicans to filibuster it.

What it means

Every Arizonan currently getting federal unemployment benefits will be impacted differently. Those who qualify can get up to 73 additional weeks of federal of unemployment payments under a system of levels, or "tiers." Each tier offers several weeks of benefits.

Without cash from the job bill, new unemployed workers won't receive any benefits beyond the 26 weeks of state aid.

Workers who are already getting extended federal benefits can finish the weeks of aid left in their benefit tier. But they won't get additional federal unemployment aid.

State officials have already received anguished calls from job-seekers who qualify for unemployment benefits under the federal extension but have stopped receiving payments.
Over the coming weeks and months, those numbers will grow, Meissner said.

"These are the long-term unemployed that have exhausted other resources. They borrowed from friends and family. I am at a loss to say how they will deal with it," he said.

There are already 1.1 million Arizonans getting some form of food assistance from the state, he said.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a non-profit that serves meals in the Valley, is serving more people in need, spokeswoman Susan deQueljoe said. Although the group cut back on the frequency of meals it serves, it still provided 178,000 meals from October to May, roughly the same as a year earlier, as more people showed up for free food, she said. They included the homeless, working poor and people without jobs.

"During the past year, we are seeing more new faces, people who we haven't seen before," she said.

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