PHOENIX — Arizona has finally hired a firm to process the jobless claims of those who qualify only for special federal aid.

But it will take weeks before the checks are in the mail to these part-timers, independent contractors and others who are ineligible for the regular state unemployment insurance program, putting Arizona behind at least 10 other states where residents are already getting benefits.

Unemployment is persistently high

And one reason, according to a top official of the Department of Economic Security, is that Arizona hasn’t had the kind of disasters that have befallen other states like Texas which already are making payments. Michael Wisehart, the agency’s deputy director of employment and relief services, told Capitol Media Services that means Arizona has to construct such a system from scratch.

In an announcement Friday, the DES has contracted with Geographic Solutions to set up a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for the state.

The move comes nearly a month after Congress approved the Coronovirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. One provision of this $2.2 trillion stimulus package creates this new PUA program with its benefits of $600 a week.

DES already has been providing the additional cash to those who already are eligible for the regular state benefits of up to $240 a week.

But the federal law also provides that $600 benefit for those who don’t qualify under the state program. And that required DES to develop an entirely new system.

Weishart said there was no way to simply piggy-back it on to the current computer programs that now handle the state benefits. Much of that, he said, is simply because there are entirely different eligibility criteria.

For example, there are financial requirements to have earned enough money in the past four calendar quarters. That includes having worked the equivalent of at least 30 hours a week at minimum wage for one of those quarters.

Also ineligible are those who have been self-employed, including workers in the gig economy and independent contractors. And those seeking only part-time work or those who have exhausted the 26 weeks of state benefits also do not qualify.

Deciding a new system was necessary, agency Director Tom Betlach told Capitol Media Services that it made more sense to contract that out rather than try to do it in-house.

“When you get some of these older systems, doing the programming and making the time to do that just becomes too expensive an exercise,’’ he said. And then there’s the simple fact that current staff is busy trying to deal with the nearly 420,000 Arizonans who have sought first-time benefits since Gov. Doug Ducey shuttered many businesses he said are not essential and then issued a stay-at-home order for those not working for or going to one of those businesses or participating in other essential services.

Only thing is, DES says that the new system won’t be launched until the week of May 12. At that point, though, payments will begin that week, along with retroactive benefits.

CNBC reports that the U.S. Department of Labor says that 10 states already have implemented their programs and started making payments. It also says the National Employment Law Project says it found additional three states that have initiated PUA payments, with two more in the process of launching.

Wisehart, however, said there are reasons that some states are further along.

“The advantage that a state like Texas has — it’s an unfortunate advantage — is Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Katrina,’’ he said.

“They’ve had disasters in the past,’’ Wisehart said, meaning they also had systems set up to handle emergency unemployment benefits.

“They’re able to repurpose infrastructure available to them having had those disasters,’’ he said. “They are able to be a little bit farther along in this cycle than we are.’’

Things are different here, Wisehart said.

“Arizona is unique in that we haven’t had a disaster of this magnitude in the past,’’ he said. “And so we’re needing to stand this up more from scratch.’’

Wisehart said one immediate issue is that there are people who applied for unemployment benefits after the virus and its economic effects hit but were simply turned down because they didn’t meet the state eligibility standards, like the work requirements.

Now, he said, DES will go back and work with those individuals to reconstruct their application and see if they are entitled to retroactive $600-a-week payments under the PUA program.

Wisehart acknowledged that the federal program creates new hurdles for the state in determining eligibility.

Take, for example, someone who has been self employed or is a contract worker.

He said DES will get whatever documents are available.

But Wisehart said that some of what his agency will be relying on is the sworn statement of the applicant. And, to the extent possible, DES will compare those statements with available data sources.

“We’re working with our federal partners and other state partners to figure out best practices in getting that information and making sure that people understand their responsibilities in reporting to us, and ferreting out any fraud that we can,’’ he said.

The ultimate fallback, Wisehart said, may come at some future point when new documents become available and the state can determine if people have made fraudulent claims.

“And they’re going to have to pay those benefits back,’’ he said.

The governor’s order shutting down parts of the economy expires at midnight this coming Thursday night. Ducey has said he is still studying the data on the spread of the virus before making any decision whether to lift the restrictions in whole or in part or extend them as has been done by the governors of several other states.

At last count Arizona has logged 6,045 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 266 deaths, including 17 reported just on Friday. And 200 of the deaths were among those 65 and older.

Howard Fischer is a veteran journalist who has reported on state government and legal affairs in Arizona since 1982, the last 25 for Capitol Media Services which he founded in 1991.

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