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Unemployment Urgency

With hundreds of thousands of unemployed Arizonans scrambling to make ends meet on $240 a week, local bartenders reflect on what’s next now that the extra $600 federal unemployment benefit has ended

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During his press conference last week, Gov. Doug Ducey was adamant the state has done all it can by enacting an eviction moratorium to help hundreds of thousands of unemployed Arizonans survive while their federal benefits evaporate. Ducey said the federal government needs to step up to solve the problem.

"We've worked very hard to make sure Arizonans have the resources necessary and people aren't losing the place they live," Gov. Ducey said. "As we transition through this, it will require more cooperation from Congress. We've done our job. I need Congress to act."

But that additional $600 a week—which was all hundreds of thousands of Arizonans in the gig economy or otherwise ineligible for traditional were receiving in aid—expired at the end of July. This week, a new coronavirus relief package has stalled in the U.S. Senate as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and the White House struggle to find common ground to make a deal. Democrats want to extend the extra $600 a week into 2021; Republicans want to see it reduced because they believe it provides too much money, so workers aren't trying to get their jobs back.

St. Charles Tavern and La Cocina bartender Allie Baron believes the governor has passed the buck to the federal government. She thinks Arizona should raise the state's unemployment benefits, which haven't been adjusted since 2004.

"Arizona has one of the lowest unemployment benefits in the country," Baron said. " I just don't see how anybody who is supporting a family can survive on $240 a week and still be able to pay their bills, their rent or mortgage and still be able to put food on the table."

Baron said she and her husband Shane—who is also an out-of-work service industry employee—have been stocking away any extra cash they're received from unemployment benefits after paying their monthly expenses. She's confident they will have enough to survive the next few months while Congress decides whether they'll approve future unemployment benefits.

"Luckily, I was really careful about saving a lot of the money throughout the pandemic," Baron said. "Between the two of us we've managed to put aside a little cushion to help us until we get back to work."

Kingfisher bartender Eric Smith never thought the prize money he won last year on the TV game show Jeopardy would be used to keep his family afloat during the pandemic. While Smith is thankful he has a bit of financial backing during these hard times, the bartending trivia buff knows his winnings will rapidly dwindle down should the service industry remain closed for a few more months.

"I haven't been to work since March 17 and I haven't had to touch my savings while receiving that extra benefit," Smith said. "Without it is a huge negative factor for me. This isn't how I dreamed of spending my Jeopardy money, but I'm glad it's there if I need it."

Smith said he's been actively looking for work outside the service industry for the past three weeks before the federal unemployment ended on July 31. However, his phone hasn't been blowing up with job offers from prospective employers. He said those who think unemployment benefits are disincentivizing the public from finding a job is a myth.

"Some of our Senators like to put this image that people are just sitting at home not trying to work. I've applied for at least six jobs in the past three weeks and haven't heard anything back," Smith said. "A lot of us had good jobs but we're not able to work at the moment. Cutting that $600 for me is less discretionary money and I'm keeping my fingers crossed (Kingfisher) is open by the end of the month."

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