Q&AZ: Arizona Caregiver Tries To Navigate State Unemployment System

By Matthew Casey
Published: Tuesday, April 7, 2020 - 7:28am
Updated: Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 11:32am

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Almost 250,000 people filed new unemployment claims in Arizona over the last three weeks. Near the end of the first week, Gov. Doug Ducey gave an order that people who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 would not have to show they’d looked for new work to qualify for help.

Days later, through KJZZ's Q&AZ reporting project, Jeanne Apelseth asked why the state’s system still wanted her to list jobs she’d applied for.

Jeanne Apelseth and her partner Michael.
Jeanne Apelseth
Jeanne Apelseth and her partner, Michael.

Apelseth takes care of her partner, Michael. 

“You have to have a committed caregiver when you sign up for a lung transplant. That’s one of the things that is absolutely not negotiable,” she said.

The couple moved to San Tan Valley about a year and a half ago. Michael has been hospitalized more than a half dozen times since.

“There’s so many things that can affect him. His immune system is suppressed,” said Apelseth.

Apelseth has to be with Michael all the time. She had a part-time job doing marketing and public relations work for an East Valley swim school.

“I was pretty fortunate I got to do work from home, which helps with his health problems,” she said.

The school had just expanded when the coronavirus outbreak forced it to shut down. Apelseth lost her job.

“I believe it was on a Friday, maybe the 13th,” she said.

Apelseth said she signed up for unemployment right away, and the process went smoothly. Next she tried to file a weekly claim. But got stuck because the state’s online system wanted her to list jobs she'd tried to get. Not wanting to be disqualified, she called the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES). 

“I tried Twitter, and I tried Facebook, and I tried sending emails. And just nothing got through to anybody,” she said.

Apelseth said she applied for four jobs so she could submit her first weekly claim. It took seven business days for the state’s online system to reflect Ducey’s executive order.

A former official at the Department of Economic Security (DES) said the state’s decades-old system was going to be replaced. But a former director pulled out of a multi-state coalition that worked on the project.

“The agency was acutely aware that this 1980s technology simply couldn’t scale in the age of the internet,” said Jim Hillyard, who held several high-level positions during more than a decade working for DES.

Jim Hillyard
Courtesy of Valley Metro
Jim Hillyard worked at the Arizona Department of Economic Security for more than a decade.

“I know one of the challenges of an old system is the programming is really inflexible. They’re using languages like Cobalt and databases that are dinosaurs in IT terms.”

New systems are expensive. So in the years following the Great Recession, Arizona joined three other states to share the cost for a new one. Hillyard said former director Tim Jeffries pulled out of the project. 

“And so today, we’re working with a 30-year-old system and one of our consortium partners, Wyoming, is working with a brand new system,” Hillyard said.

DES did not do an interview for this story. Nor did agency officials answer written questions like why Jeffries quit the project, or how much money was spent.

A spokesman for Wyoming’s workforce agency said Colorado and North Dakota also left the coalition. Wyoming spent $8 million for its new system, and the rest was covered with federal grant money.

Still having an old system in Arizona aggravates the challenge to handle the avalanche of new unemployment claims, Hillyard said.

“I think most people don’t drive cars that are over 30 years old, much less use computer systems from another era,” he said

Jeanne Apelseth met her future partner, Michael, in a different era.

“I don’t know. I think I was 15, and he was 18,” she said.

They didn’t see each other for decades, but met again in their Midwestern hometown. The move to Arizona, plus many hospital trips, meant they had no savings when Apelseth lost her job.

“It’s very frightening. I pay my bills on time. I’m used to having the money to buy groceries, so it’s very frightening,” she said.

Michael has a compromised immune system because medication keeps his body from rejecting his transplanted lung, Apelseth said. So she can’t take the chance of being exposed to COVID-19 at a new job.

“I can’t do anything now where I can go out among people. It would be too big of a risk for him, for his health,” she said.   

Apelseth hopes to go back to her old job when the swim school can reopen. Until then, she’s counting on Arizona’s unemployment system as a crucial source of income. Her first payment was for less than $200.

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