Big news for those unemployed by the pandemic.

Belatedly, the Hutchinson administration has decided to pay the full six weeks of added federal unemployment benefits ($300 per week) from FEMA money.

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The state had earlier received $79 million to pay for three weeks of benefits ($900) for weeks beginning Aug. 1 under the Lost Wages Assistance Program but had resisted paying the full six weeks allowed under the program, as most states have done, because of questions about meeting the state match. It met the one-quarter match on the first three weeks by getting credit for payments under the regular unemployment insurance program but was out of credits for use of that money again.

This caused an uproar among the unemployed, who this week organized a calling campaign to the governor’s office. (See the string of comments on my earlier report on the payments.) They’d read the news stories that promised six weeks of benefits and wanted to know why Arkansas wasn’t doing it.

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Whether their calls were heard or not, I was informed last night by Katie Beck, the governor’s communications director, and Alisha Curtis, spokesperson for the Commerce Department, that the plans now were to use federal CARES Act money to meet the one-quarter state match to provide the additional three weeks of benefits, subject to legislative approval.

Said Beck:

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The deadline to apply for the LWA program was September 10, 2020. We applied and were approved for the program on August 25, 2020. We received and disbursed LWA supplemental wage payments for the first three weeks. It will appear in front of ALC on October 16 and three additional weeks will be requested. If approval is granted by the ALC and funding is provided by the CARES Act Steering Committee, LWA supplemental wage payments will be paid to eligible claimants for an additional three weeks.

Will the legislature go along? Some of that hard-working bunch think unemployment benefits encourage people not to work (though this special benefit is available under regular unemployment benefits only to those who certified by Sept. 25 that they are out of work because of the pandemic; those who qualified for special benefits for self-employed do not have to reapply.).

This sop from CARES Act money is overdue. Commerce Secretary Mike Preston had earlier done a hurry-up, unannounced move to transfer $165 million into the unemployment trust fund. That took the money off the table for use on needy people for things like rental assistance or, say, an unemployment match. This shift was done to provide a $10-per-employee annual tax savings for businesses, a benefit primarily for the biggest employers in the state.

In addition to CARES Act money (the state still has more than $100 million on hand) it has piled up a $158 million surplus in the first three months of the year thanks to tight budgets and decent tax revenue. Seems like $20 million or so is easily findable for the unemployed.

 

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