No more phone calls: Arizona's unemployed must go online to keep checks coming - East Valley Tribune: Business

No more phone calls: Arizona's unemployed must go online to keep checks coming

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Posted: Saturday, August 11, 2012 8:00 am | Updated: 8:50 am, Tue Aug 14, 2012.

If you have to verify you’re looking for work to keep your unemployment checks coming, forget about phoning it in.

The state Department of Economic Security was shutting down its telephone system overnight Friday where those out of work have until now been able to call in to report that they’ve made efforts in the past week to find a new job. Now, only submissions submitted on the Web will count.

But DES officials stressed that does not mean the unemployed without computers are out of luck — and out of checks.

They will, however, have to do a bit more to comply. That involves getting a form at a DES office, filling it out manually and then either using a fax machine there or mailing it back.

The change was made necessary by a new law which spells out in statute, for the first time ever, exactly what is expected of those without jobs if they hope to continue to get benefits. Mark Darmer, a deputy assistant DES director, said the information which is now required cannot be handled by an automated phone-in system where jobless benefits recipients simply punch 1 or 2 to answer questions.

Darmer acknowledged that more than 90 percent of the approximately 90,000 Arizonans currently getting weekly checks use the phone system. But he said all have been sent notices — and those who were not aware will find out when they call in.

It all comes down to the legislation approved earlier this year.

State law entitles those who are laid off or fired for no fault of their own to collect half of what they were making. But the limit on benefits is $240 a week; only Mississippi has a lower cap.

Businesses have a vested interest in limiting who can collect and how much because the first 26 weeks of payments come from a fund financed by premiums paid by employers. Rates, which are set based on how frequently a company lays off workers, range from less than 1 percent to 5.4 percent of the first $7,000 of each employee’s salary.

But the tax rate also is affected by how much money is in the fund. Given the length of the recession, Arizona had to borrow about $600 million from the federal government when the fund went broke; it still owes about $230 million.

The new law requires recipients to engage a “systematic and sustained effort” to find a new job during at least four days of the week. In the past, DES rules required that to happen just one day a week.

Darmer said that involves everything from checking out help wanted ads to visiting company employment websites, all of which will now have to be reported on the new form.

But there now also is a specific requirement to make at least three work search contacts during the week.

“Did they either go to the employer to get an employment application and fill it out and leave it with the employer?” he explained.

“Did they go to the employer and leave a resume?” Darmer continued. “Did they go online and file an application?”

He said this does not require a face-to-face contact with an employer. But it does require a showing of an active effort to find work.

“It’s one thing to go out and look at the job postings,” Darmer said. “But you have to apply if there is a position that is open and would seem to fit into your chosen career field.”

All that information, he said, is incompatible with the current automated phone system.

For those with computers, Darmer said the transition should be seamless. He said that instead of making that Saturday phone call, logging on to the site at “www.azui.com” will lead to a link to file the weekly report and all the new details.

What could change for everyone else, he said, is how quickly the check is in the mail.

He said a completed form mailed at the end of the week might not get to DES offices until the middle of the following week. Darmer said that, in turn, will result in a delay in cutting the checks and getting them back out.

But he stressed that the money will be coming, albeit a bit later.

There is, however, a new exception to that.

Under the terms of the same new law now effective, lawmakers decreed that a person is ineligible for benefits if an employer requires a drug test and the applicant refuses to submit. Checks also will disappear if the person fails the drug test and therefore is not hired.

Darmer figures that only about half of the approximately 90,000 collecting jobless benefits in Arizona are getting money through the state trust fund, which covers 26 weeks of being out of work. The remainder of the long-term unemployed are part of a federally funded emergency program which will disappear by the end of the year.

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