PHOENIX — More than a third of Arizonans collecting jobless benefits could be getting their final checks this week.
But state officials say they should keep applying anyway — just in case.
The problem, according to Mark Darmer, a deputy assistant director of the state Department of Economic Security, is funding for the emergency unemployment compensation program runs out on Saturday. And Darmer said that Congress has yet to authorize its continuation — or appropriate the necessary money.
Most immediately the cutoff would affect the 21,000 Arizonans are getting such benefits out of a total of about 48,000 who are collecting some sort of unemployment insurance. But state officials say that unless Congress acts — and soon — thousands of others whose regular benefits are expected to run out before the find work again also will find themselves without the emergency benefits now available.
State law provides that individuals who are fired, laid off or otherwise lose their jobs through no fault of their own are entitled to compensation.
The first 26 weeks of benefits come from a fund paid for by a tax on employers on the first $7,000 of each worker's salary. The exact amount of the tax depends on each company's layoff history.
Theoretically, those eligible are entitled to half of what they were earning. But lawmakers, at the behest of business interests, have imposed a cap of $240 a week, the second lowest in the nation after Mississippi.
This program, funded entirely by the federal government, covers the next 47 weeks — albeit with that same $240 cap.
With the week ending Saturday being the last authorized by law, that means the last checks for those in the emergency unemployment program will come the first week of January. But Darmer said those who have been making the weekly claims — and documenting their job search efforts — should keep doing it.
"The strong message in there is claimants need to continue to file for benefits, even after the 29th,'' he said.
"What we don't want to have happen is people stop filing, Congress goes into January, finally does something and makes it retroactive,'' Darmer explained. "And then there's a whole ton of people trying to get caught up on their benefits.''
Under the law, those who want continued benefits have to show they are engaged in a "systematic and sustained effort'' to find a job during at least four days of the week. There also is a requirement to make at least three work search contacts during the week.
All that needs to be reported to the state by fax, email or on a computer at a DES office.
The failure of Congress to act affects more than Arizona.
Congress has approved some form of extended benefits since 2008 when unemployment rates shot up and many people were unable to find jobs after their regular benefits expired.
Despite the improved economy, Arizona's unemployment rate last month was still 7.8 percent. The national figure was 7.7 percent.
A decade ago the state's jobless rate was 5.9 percent. And it dropped as low as 3.5 percent in 2007, before the economy soured.
Estimates are close to two million people nationwide are getting emergency unemployment compensation. And another million whose regular benefits will expire will be unable to get continued help.
Cutting off payments would have ripple effects beyond those who find themselves without income. It means they will have less money to spend which, in turn, means less income for retail stores.