Arizona Department Of Economic Security Director: Pandemic Shows 'We Have To Continue To Get Better'

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 1:36pm
Updated: Thursday, July 9, 2020 - 9:05am

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DES Office
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
An office for the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The national jobs numbers for June were somewhat encouraging, with 4.8 million positions being added and more than 2.2% decline in the unemployment rate. But millions of Americans remain out of work as the effects of the pandemic and the recent COVID-19 spike exacerbate the economic uncertainty. And for those who are unemployed in Arizona, where the monthly payout is one of the lowest in the country, the approaching expiration of the $600 a month federal supplement is extremely daunting. With me to talk about the circumstances, here is Michael Wisehart, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Michael, where are we in terms of people who are looking for work and want to work but are concerned about the spike in coronavirus cases?

MICHAEL WISEHART: Yeah, I think, Steve, our No. 1 concern right now is the health and safety of Arizonans. And so we are trying to work with the business community as well as claimants to ensure that individuals that need access to unemployment insurance in order to remain healthy, out of potential harm, have access to those benefits. And so we've done a lot of work with the business community to help them understand what their requirements are in regards to helping individuals have access to safe environments to work in, and we continue to work with claimants to make sure they can access benefits. We aren't removing large numbers of individuals from benefits if they feel unsafe in the work area.

GOLDSTEIN: Mike, when you mentioned generally working with the business community, has there been an understanding, frankly, among all stakeholders that this is something unique we haven't seen before and that once we hopefully get out of this, then other things have to be taken into account. But for now, everyone realizes how exceptional it is.

WISEHART: Yeah, I think there's been ongoing conversation around all the stakeholders involved in both the health and safety of Arizonans combined with the need to keep the economic engine moving forward so that it doesn't completely stall out. And we end up in a situation where we are both fighting the pandemic and a bottoming of the economy simultaneously, because I think we know what the impacts of something like that would be. So it is an extremely delicate balancing act. Health and safety is No. 1, and then the economy is really right behind it. So almost a 1A priority is we work through getting folks unemployment resources during this time, but also figuring out the best ways to ensure the economy moves forward as we look to the future in stabilizing this.

GOLDSTEIN: Michael, what's it like as someone who has done this generally for a long time and to take over as director of such a huge office during a once in a century pandemic?

WISEHART: It's a huge challenge, but also a huge opportunity. We're getting an opportunity to really see where the department provides health and safety, almost lifesaving services to Arizonans. And so it's giving us an opportunity to really focus on those key critical areas that Arizonans rely on day in and day out. It's opening up, I think, our eyes to areas where Arizonans really need us to be better. It's a huge challenge. And I don't mean to underscore this immense situation that we have in front of us, but really in working through this, it's also a tremendous opportunity for us to reshape the way that the department helps assist and moves Arizonans forward, because it's really identifying those areas that are of immense criticality to Arizonans as we move forward.

GOLDSTEIN: Even though no one wants it to happen in the midst of a pandemic, was it a system that needed restructuring, more innovation, whatever, as many, frankly, agencies do?

WISEHART: Yeah. I'll never be critical of those individuals that came before me in this huge task. A large agency with a tremendous responsibility. But there's no question that we as an organization have to continue to get better. We aren't meeting the requirements of Arizonans in those areas that are core competencies for our department at the level that we need to. And so we're going to continue to evolve, we're going to continue to get better. And really, the pandemic brings us into laser focus those areas that require the most attention, the most need for us to continue to get better every day.

GOLDSTEIN: Michael, let me ask you a question about federal money. There's been this federal unemployment supplement of $600 a week that's going to expire at the end of this month, or is at least set to. Is there a concern that with that expiration, if it's not extended in some way, that that could create a gap that might stress other state programs, in DES, elsewhere?

WISEHART: Yeah. I think, you know, my No. 1 message right now around that is that we have to take seriously our responsibility as Arizonans to stay safe and stay healthy over the next several weeks, because we need to change the trajectory of this pandemic in this state so that people can safely get back to work. Because right now it doesn't appear like the $600 is going to continue beyond July 25th. And we really need people to be able to safely and, you know, get back into the workforce. And so that they can continue to earn enough for their families. It's definitely a huge issue that I and policymakers continue to talk about the implications of relative to the safety net that's available when that payment does begin to expire toward the end of this month.

GOLDSTEIN: Attorney General Brnovich had said last week his department's investigating unemployment fraud, that certain people have received debit cards they never applied to. What's your level of concern there? And is that something that could be fixed by your department? Is that something that is a major problem that's happening outside the department?

WISEHART: So this isn't an Arizona specific problem. Congress purposefully created a program that was reasonably easy to access for individuals in this country in order to ensure that they were able to receive the financial assistance that they needed through this pandemic. But it also created an environment that provides a tremendous opportunity for fraudsters to access. And so we're working with our partner state agencies, law enforcement at all levels, both statewide and nationwide, but it is a huge problem that is taking up a lot of our time as we work through trying to figure out a way to balance not creating unnecessary hurdles for Arizonans to access these benefits, but to ensure that individuals that might not have the best intentions don't have easy access to these benefits as well. And it is a very delicate balancing act that we work through every single day trying to to manage through this.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Michael Wisehart. He is the director of Arizona's Department of Economic Security. Michael, thanks. Good luck and be well.

WISEHART: I appreciate it. Thank you.

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