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“I started selling things online, like just old kids’ stuff, just to try and add to the small amount I was getting for unemployment.”

Meschelle Hornstein, an airport restaurant server, had her livelihood destroyed when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses across the country and severely reduced travel. 

She was able to receive unemployment, but in Arizona, that’s only a maximum of $240 per week, the second lowest amount in the US.

“Some of those weeks were just like, ‘Oh man …  I can’t even pay one bill with this,’” she told The Copper Courier. “It was kind of like a pick-and-choose what bill do I put this towards? Or what biller do I call to see if they are willing to work with me?” 

 During the weeks she wasn’t receiving any federal supplements, Hornstein was pocketing only about $216 after taxes. 

“You have to hustle everything,” Hornstein said. “I started selling things online, like just old kids’ stuff, just to try and add to the small amount I was getting for unemployment. Even if I would have saved up all four weeks, that wouldn’t have even covered my rent.” 

Hornstein was left unable to pay rent and had to vacate her home and move in with her 4-year-old daughter’s father.  

“I think a lot of us are in these vey not ideal situations right now,” she said, “and we’re all just trying to scrape by while we wait.” 

An Increase in the Works

The Arizona Legislature is working on two bills that would increase unemployment payments.

HB 2805 would raise the weekly maximum amount to $300. SB 1411 would initially raise that amount to $320, then to $400 later down the line. 

Arizonans who have been unemployed during the pandemic say the extra $60-$80 is a small amount but still something they would have been grateful for. 

“It may not seem like a lot but when you’re in those tough situations that increase, those $60, will definitely help out,” Emmanuel Valenzuela, a Tucson Homegoods worker who was furloughed for about two months, said. “And hopefully some of these bills do go through so that [the unemployed] can receive the help that is needed.” 

Sean Brady, a mental health counselor who lost his job last year, had issues receiving any unemployment money at all—he was one of the many  people whose claims were wrongly flagged as fraudulent and delayed as a result. The state still owes him about $5,000.

But if the system had actually worked for him, he said, the $240 per week still would not have been enough to pay all of his bills. 

“At $300 a week, or $320 a week, that’s a difference of another bill that could be paid, or car insurance so you can use your car to maybe do Lyft or something to get by, medicine,” Brady said. “There’s plenty of ways that you can split that extra money into a budgetary option for necessities.” 

Veronica Monge, co-chair of the Arizona Poor People’s Campaign, began receiving unemployment when she lost her job at a law firm last year. She received a $300 weekly boost from the federal government for a period and thinks the state increase needs to be closer to that amount. 

“I believe the $540 is where it met my needs and I was able to pay everything,” she said. “And so I believe the $540 is a just amount to be giving the people because the $240 is not going to cut it for the expenses that we have.” 

Other Changes

HB 2805 and SB 1411 would also increase the amount of money people could make before their unemployment gets decreased. Currently, Arizonans can only make $30 a week and still receive the maximum payment. The bills would allow Arizonans to make $160 and still get $240 a week, meaning they could potentially increase their weekly income to $400. 

“If I was able to keep my unemployment … and make some money doing Lyft or some sort of part-time delivery gig,” Brady said, “yeah, I think that absolutely it would be beneficial.” 

But Gabriel Mares, one of Valenzuela’s Homegoods co-workers, said the amount should be even higher, and that people should be able to earn the same amount as the payment. 

 “I don’t see why you should be penalized on your unemployment when you’re trying to keep your head above the water and move forward,” he said. 

But there’s one thing SB 1411 would do that HB 2805 wouldn’t—reduce the number of weeks Arizonans can receive benefits. The Senate bill would only offer unemployment for the current duration of 26 weeks if unemployment in the state is above 4.5% or if there is a state of emergency declaration in place. If unemployment were under 4.5% and no emergency, unemployment would only last 22 weeks. 

HB 2805 passed the House last month and is being considered in the Senate. The Senate passed SB 1411 on Thursday and sent it to the House. 

More Federal Money on the Way

Luckily for those receiving unemployment, more help is on the way. 

President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last week.

The stimulus package extends pandemic-era unemployment programs and the current $300 per week boost through Sept. 6. 

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the program for workers who wouldn’t normally qualify for unemployment, will be boosted from 50 weeks to 79. Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PUEC), which is for people who were unemployed before the pandemic, will be extended from 24 weeks of benefits to 53. 

The American Rescue Plan also includes $1,400 stimulus checks for Americans making under $75,000 and couples making under $150,000, with an extra $1,400 for each dependent. That check will be equal to nearly six weeks of Arizona unemployment payments. 

This money on top of the boosted unemployment benefits could help stabilize some families’ finances and help them get closer to where they were before the pandemic. 

Hornstein said her job loss has made her completely rethink what the next few years will look like for her. 

“I definitely was trying to start putting money away for buying my own house, which is not in the cards for however long now. I had to put money on credit cards,” she said. “Trying to work my debt down is just not in the cards right now. I’ve been having to pull money from my savings account to pay for my car, and pay for health-related costs.”