Guest Commentary 

If you're unemployed in Arizona, expect to get far less help than the vast majority of your fellow Americans

As the debate over extending unemployment benefits bounds toward compromise and the finish line in Washington, D.C., a memory from my brief venture into the restaurant business occasionally bubbles up in my brain.

The order line stalled one morning as lunchtime approached. As it turned out, the woman working the counter and another woman were hunched nervously over a piece of paper that turned out to be the other woman's weekly job-search diary that the Arizona Department of Economic Security requires people on unemployment to deliver as proof that they're looking for work.

As I walked up, my employee said, "Maybe I shouldn't be doing this. Here's my boss."

I picked up the paper and asked the woman if she wanted to apply for a job.

She said, "No, and I don't want to, neither." Then she snatched the paper and stormed off; she apparently felt I had some obligation to help her play the system by not actually making her apply.

And what was she hoping to get for it? If it happened now, getting caught in Arizona would have cost her between $60 and $240 in weekly benefits.

I thought about her lately, because as the debate over extending unemployment benefits has pinballed among the House, Senate and the White House, I wondered what the power players really see when an issue like this hits the floor. Do our representatives think of the few who'd rather play the system than work for a wage? Or do they see the many who are hoping that the unemployment check will keep them afloat until they're working again?

The wolf of joblessness has graced my doorstep in many forms lately, and it stares back at me every time I look at a mirror. I've been in and out of the national unemployment stats since the fall of 2006 following two "things just haven't gone the way we'd hoped" firings (and, yes, under some circumstances, you can collect unemployment if that's how the boss explains your fate) and a layoff.

And I'm lucky. When I was fired from the Explorer last summer, I hadn't worked enough calendar quarters in Arizona at that point to qualify for unemployment, and a sharp-eyed DES worker told me I was still eligible in California (where I'd worked before the Explorer). And, he said, it would be better money anyway--the maximum was $450 a week compared to Arizona's top payout of $240.

Little did I know, really, just how great of a favor the caseworker at DES did for me.

If you've been following the debate in Washington, you can probably recite the boilerplate material from the wire-service stories: The average weekly unemployment benefit payment in the United States is just less than $300 ($299.14, to be exact).

Obviously, Zonies on unemployment should be so lucky. It's worse to know, perhaps, that Arizona is one of eight states that, along with Puerto Rico, have maximum benefits below the average weekly payout nationally, according to figures from the U.S. Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration Web site.

Why is Arizona's maximum so low? It's a function of the way states connect wages to unemployment benefits, once they've determined that someone's lost a job through no fault of his or her own. In almost every state, you have to have worked at least 20 weeks during the first four of the last five calendar quarters prior to the job loss. Then they look at how much money the person earned. To get the full $240, you have to have earned at least $5,988 in the highest quarter, or about $11.51 an hour on a 40-hour week. And your total earnings for the base period would have to be at least $8,981.

Unfortunately, there's another reason why it's so low, and, I suspect, it has to do with a much simpler equation.

The national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in May. In April, the most recent month for which state-by-state numbers were available, Arizona's unemployment rate was revealed to be only 4.4 percent. And in that same month, unemployment in Tucson was 3.3 percent; in Phoenix, 3.2 percent.

So in the calculus of politics, Arizona doesn't have much of an unemployment problem.

Tell that to those of us who aren't working--and want to be.

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