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3:05 AM Mon, Oct. 22nd

Unemployed must accept job in 4 weeks or lose benefits

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey

PHOENIX – Arizonans who don’t take pretty much any job after being out of work for at least four weeks will lose their unemployment benefits.

But the change in law that takes effect Aug. 3 does nothing to alter the fact that Arizona has the second-lowest benefits in the country.

Under current law, someone collecting benefits must accept “suitable’’ work. But the Department of Economic Security is required to consider various factors, including the “risk involved to the individual’s health, safety and morals.’’

Other considerations include physical fitness for the work, experience, prior earnings and how long the person has been unemployed. And DES also has to figure in the prospects of the person being able to secure local work in the individual’s customary occupation as well as the distance to the new job.

The new law signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday makes that legally irrelevant after someone has been collecting benefits for four weeks. At that point the person would have to take a job – any job – where the employer is offering to pay someone at least 20 percent more than they are collecting in benefits.

And that’s not much.

Under Arizona law, individuals who are laid off or fired through no fault of their own are entitled to collect payments equal to one-half of what they were earning for up to 26 weeks. The money comes out of a special funds financed by premiums paid by employers.

But here’s the thing: Arizona law limits benefits to $240 a week, no matter how much the person was earning. Only Mississippi has a lower cap.

And that means someone would have to take any work that pays at least $288 a week, the equivalent of about $15,000 a year, no matter how much she or he was earning before.

Ducey provided no explanation for his decision to sign the measure which was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature without a single Democrat vote. But press aide Daniel Scarpinato called it “common-sense reform,’’ even if it does force people to take work that, until now, Arizona law has not defined as “suitable.’’

“It’s a job that the individual’s been offered and it pays,’’ he said. Scarpinato said Ducey supports the idea of people finding employment “who are getting off of benefits and finding value in work.’’

“That’s the kind of action that we want to reward rather than somehow disincentivizing,’’ he said.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, who championed the measure, said he is not concerned that people will be forced to accept unsuitable work.

The solution, he said, is simple: Don’t apply for such jobs in the first place. If there’s no offer on the table, he said, someone collecting benefits can’t be accused of refusing to take it.

But it’s not that simple.

During legislative debate on the measure, DES lobbyist Kathy Ber pointed out existing Arizona law requires those on unemployment insurance to engage in “a systematic and sustained effort to obtain work during at least four days of the week.’’ That same law mandates the person make at least one job contact per day on each of those four days.

Smith was unsympathetic to the possibility that someone who has been collecting benefits for at least four weeks could be forced to take a job that, until now, DES has considered unsuitable.

“You’re supposed to go out and look for a job,’’ he said, with the benefits simply to provide a financial bridge while people are doing that.

“We shouldn’t say, ‘Pretty please, here’s a job, would you please take it?’ ‘’ Smith continued. “If you’re offered a job that pays you more than your benefit, you should take it.’’

That also is the attitude of Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, part of owner a firm that runs Dilly’s Deli which has several sandwich shops as well as Floridino’s Pizza and Pasta.

Like all employers, Weninger pays into the account that funds unemployment benefits. Premiums range from less than 1 percent of the worker’s first $7,000 of wages to nearly 13 percent, with the actual rate dependent on how often a company lays off or fires a worker without cause.

Weninger said he has close to 100 employees.

“I’ve paid a ton of money into this,’’ he said, blasting “this notion that the government or employers or everybody has to take care of someone cradle to the grave.’’

If SB 1398 becomes law it would have no immediate impact on how much employers pay. But DES officials said if fewer people overall are collecting, that leaves more money in the special account that finances the benefits, opening the door for future rate decreases.

That account was depleted during the recession when the state’s jobless rate topped 11 percent, with DES having to borrow money from the federal government.

The unemployment rate for March was 4.9 percent, with the April figures due to be announced today (eds: Thursday). And DES reports that the fund hit nearly $571.6 million this past June 30, up from $332.7 million a year earlier.

The measure does have a carrot of sorts.

It requires DES to set up a return-to-work program where those collecting unemployment insurance could become an apprentice or intern at certain companies for up to six weeks. The sweetener is they can continue to collect their weekly checks.