PHOENIX — Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Arizonans are within weeks of losing more than half of their benefits.
And that would leave them with just the $240 a week — if not less — that the state provides, the second lowest in the nation.
Michael Wisehart, director of the state Department of Economic Security, said Wednesday he has been assured there are sufficient federal dollars to pay the $300 in extra benefits in the special federal Lost Wage Assistance program for this week. That is the fifth week that has been available.
Wisehart also said he believes there’s enough federal cash for a sixth week.
He said though, that given that other states are drawing against the $44 billion federal allocation, the dollars will dry up before Week 7. And he said it likely will come without warning.
But Gov. Doug Ducey has no plans to have the state step in and try to make up even part of the difference.
“We’ve known these funds were limited,’’ said press aide Patrick Ptak. He said that’s why Arizona moved quickly to accept the offer by President Trump to get a share of that federal cash.
And going forward for Arizona’s unemployed?
“As we’ve said all along, Congress needs to work together to extend these benefits long-term,’’ Ptak said.
Complicating matters, Wisehart said that the economy remains soft and Arizonans continue to lose their jobs.
He said about 131,000 people made first-time applications for benefits last week. That compares with 86,000 the prior week and just 50,000 the week before.
The situation is even more dire than that.
Wisehart said the unemployment trust fund — the dollars set aside by a tax on employers to pay regular state benefits — will become insolvent in about eight weeks.
Put simply, the account which had $1.1 billion in it before the COVID-19 outbreak and the restrictions imposed by Ducey on business operations is now down to about $400 million. And Wisehart said the state is burning through the cash at about $50 million a week, with no end in sight.
“Obviously the pandemic isn’t going to end soon,’’ he said.
That won’t mean an end to regular state jobless benefits. Instead, it will mean Arizona will have to borrow money from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“But you have to pay that money back, through taxes on employers, going forward,’’ Wisehart said. And that, in turn, could provide a new financial impediment to companies still reeling with the effects of the pandemic.
Ptak said his boss has set aside more than $400 million Arizona got from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. That could be used to pay jobless benefits going forward rather than forcing the state to borrow and raising taxes on employers.
But with $50 million a week more going out in benefits than what is being collected from employers, that becomes only a temporary solution.
That still leaves the question of the nearly 400,000 Arizonans who will lose that extra $300 a week sometime this month.
State law entitles those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own to collect half of what they were earning, with the proceeds coming from a levy paid by all employers on the first $7,000 of each worker’s salary. But lawmakers capped that at $240 a week; only Mississippi pays less.
There has been little pressure on lawmakers to alter that given what has been the state’s relatively low unemployment plus strong job market. In fact, in a typical pre-COVID week only about 18,000 Arizonans were collecting benefits.
As recently as July, Ducey refused to discuss altering the cap.
“It’s a hypothetical question because unemployment wasn’t really an issue before the pandemic,’’ he said. In fact, he argued, that in pre-COVID times there were plenty of jobs out there for people to find “at any time.’’
All that changed with the economic chaos caused by COVID-19 and the business closures.
But Ducey repeatedly sidestepped questions about the ability of Arizonans to survive on $240 a week — the same as it has been since 2004 — by pointing out the federal government was providing another $600 a week through Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. And when those dollars ran out, President Trump agreed to put up $44 billion from the federal Disaster Relief Fund for the $300-a-week Lost Wage Assistance program.
Assuming no congressional action, that leaves Arizona’s jobless with just that $240 maximum — and no interest by Ducey in revisiting that.
“Unfortunately, we are going to have very little notice when this happens,’’ Wisehart said of the end of the $300 Lost Wage Assistance.
Part of the problem is that it’s not just Arizona drawing down on that $44 billion. Other states have their own claims.
“We really don’t have a good sense of what’s going to be paid from other states or when it ends,’’ he continued. “But when it ends, it’s going to happen abruptly.’’
Wisehart said part of his message is for those people now getting the benefits to plan ahead for when they will no longer be there.
What might also help, he said, is working with members of Congress to come up with a new plan to provide expanded unemployment benefits — and quickly.
If — and presumably when — the trust fund balance goes to zero, it won’t be the first time.
Arizona had to start borrowing money a decade ago during the last economic downturn. It got so bad that the state eventually was in the red to the federal government to the tune of $600 million.
All that led to a surcharge on top of the tax that employers already pay. While the rate varies depending on how often companies lay off workers, the presumptive rate for new employers is 2 percent of the first $7,000, or $140 a year.
But paying off the note last time added another $42 a year per worker.
On top of that, the state had to increase the levy for years after recovery to rebuild the fund.
FLORENCE — The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office’s new Citizen Posse is not your great-granddad’s posse.
Sgt. J.R. Harrison, who is in charge of the program along with other volunteer programs run by the department, makes it clear from the start of the four-hour Saturday morning course that volunteers do not get the power to arrest or detain anyone, do not have the power to break the speed limit and will not get a weapon or a vehicle from the department.
A PinalCentral reporter attended the second Citizens Posse class held by PCSO on Aug. 29. Over the four hours of the class, volunteers get a glimpse at how the office works, how federal and state laws, such as the Fourth Amendment, govern deputies’ actions and responses to certain situations, and some of the decisions deputies have to make based on those laws.
The Fourth Amendment protects from unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government, which includes law enforcement officers. Participants also get a chance to try out the office’s new VirTra use of force simulator.
The purpose of the entire Citizens Posse program is “to not only answer questions, but to make you feel a part of what we’re doing,” Harrison told the 20 some people who attended Saturday’s class. The Citizens Posse program is different from the Patrol Posse, Search and Rescue Posse and Pinal County Citizens on Patrol programs that PCSO also runs, he said.
Those programs are also volunteer based but require members to pass a deeper background check.
The Citizens on Patrol program is similar to a Neighborhood Watch program for the county’s more rural and remote areas. Volunteers in the program have access to a PCSO vehicle but do not have arrest powers.
The Patrol Posse is also volunteer-based, but members must pass background and psychological testing and attend a training academy before they are accepted. These volunteers have access to a PCSO vehicle and are allowed to carry weapons. They help transport prisoners, secure crime scenes and events and provide traffic control, along with other duties.
The new Citizen Posse is more of an educational tool to teach citizens about the office but also encourage citizens to step up and help their communities in an emergency, such as knocking on doors during a wildfire or flood, Harrison said.
“We want everyone to be able to help everyone out,” he said.
Deputies also went over the process they have to go through to get a search warrant, such as how they have to show probable cause that a crime has been committed and how specific they have to get as to the location of the property, the reason why they want to search and what kind of items they are looking for. Deputies also pointed out that once a search warrant is issued by a judge, they have to search that property, even if they find they have the wrong house, because a warrant is a court order that must be obeyed.
Usually in those cases, deputies will explain the situation to the residents, call the judge to explain what happened and then make a cursory search of the property to meet the requirements of the warrant.
Deputies also listed a number of exceptions that allow law enforcement officers to search without a warrant, such as when someone gives an officer consent to search or if an item is in plain view.
Deputies also busted a few myths about when and how a law enforcement officer can search a vehicle or a person. For example, an officer can detain someone and pat them down for the officer’s safety if the officer thinks something suspicious is going on. Any drugs or illegal weapons found during that pat-down can be confiscated at that time. However, someone who is detained in this manner does not have to talk to the officer.
Deputies also gave a brief overview of the amount of force they may use during an arrest and how they judge how much force to use.
Participants also got a series of reminders on firearm safety and some of the best ways to protect their homes, such as purchasing an alarm system.
Deputies reminded folks to think twice about pulling a weapon on someone who may be stealing something from their yard or house. Harrison and the other deputies teaching the class strongly encouraged people to call 911 first and get a good description of the thief.
Only pull a weapon if you are willing to use it and consider if the item is really worth taking a human life for, deputies reminded participants.
Most volunteers who attend the course end their day trying out the VirTra simulator.
Harrison said PCSO has had a good response to the class from volunteers. More than 2,600 people have signed up to take the course and the office has received a number of positive responses from volunteers who have attended.
More information is available online at https://bit.ly/337koYh
CASA GRANDE — Construction of the Lucid Motors manufacturing plant in Casa Grande is nearly finished and production should begin sometime late this year or early next year.
Lucid Motors will present the Lucid Air on On Sept. 9 during an online digital reveal. According to press releases, Lucid Motors will include pricing and specifications during this event along with the final design of the interior and exterior.
Previously, the Lucid Air was supposed to premiere at the New York International Auto Show in April, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19. Lucid Motors then decided to present the vehicle during an online reveal.
“Our dream is coming ever closer to reality. And we could not be more eager to show you the game-changing Lucid Air and what it means for the future of sustainable transportation,” Lucid Motors said in a press release in June.
“Customer deliveries of the Lucid Air, which will be produced at Lucid’s new factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, will begin in early 2021,” said in a statement on Lucid’s website.
The factory will be North America’s first purpose-built all EV manufacturing facility. As completion is expected to finish up this year, the production line includes equipment from suppliers in the United States, Germany, South Korea, Mexico and Japan. During construction Lucid has leased a large portion of the distribution center on the corner on Sunland Gin Road and Jimmie Kerr Boulevard.
“The Air will be capable of over 400 miles range and 0-60 mph in under 2.5 seconds. Production of the Lucid Air will begin in late 2020 in Lucid’s new factory in Casa Grande, Arizona,” Lucid Motors said in a statement.
According to the website, there are 95 job openings in Casa Grande ranging from software positions to finance.
CASA GRANDE — With theater doors shuttered by COVID-19, it’s been about five and a half months since a singer or performer has graced the stage at the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Casa Grande.
But the theater doors reopened this week and a slate of shows and events have been scheduled to entertain audiences in a COVID-safe environment.
“We’re so excited to reopen and we have some great shows lined up through the end of year,” said Ricky Robinson, manager of the Paramount Theatre. “We had to learn a whole new way of doing things to keep people safe from COVID.”
Among the upcoming shows set for the Paramount are a Halloween party featuring the music of NFocus on Oct. 31 and a murder mystery dinner event on Nov. 5, 6 and 7. Also set are a performance by Elvis tribute performer Jim Westover in honor of Veterans Day and a world dance performance in mid-October.
Show attendees will notice a few changes.
Audience sizes will be smaller and those wanting to dance will need to be patient, Robinson said.
“We won’t ban dancing — we’ll still have the dance floor out so couples can dance, but only four couples at a time will be allowed on the dance floor,” Robinson said. “I think people will be patient and wait for their turn on the dance floor.”
Pre-COVID, a sellout show at the Paramount could have more than 200 people in the auditorium. With COVID, only about 100 people will be allowed in and the theater has been redesigned with an auditorium-style seating layout and social distancing guidelines.
“Going forward, we’ll only sell 100 tickets for a show and if we need to add more shows on additional days, we will. The same goes for the Halloween party. We’ll add another day for the party if we sell more than 100 tickets,” Robinson said. “We wanted to practice social distancing in a way that didn’t force us to raise ticket prices.”
For events that include food, such as the upcoming dinner theater event “Unmasked” by the Murder Mystery Players of Casa Grande, meals will be served in disposable take-out containers. Families will be seated together and social distancing will be practiced.
Audiences will be asked to wear masks except when eating.
While Robinson said theater crews have always been good at cleaning the facility after events, a new focus has been placed on sanitizing before and after each show.
“We’ll take the extra step with spraying the theater after each show,” he said. “The theater is 100% sanitized.”
New hand sanitizing stations have been positioned throughout the facility.
“Before they were only in the bathrooms,” Robinson said.
The Paramount Theatre, at 420 N. Florence St., is Casa Grande’s oldest theater. It’s a popular venue for live musical shows, plays, parties, weddings and other events.
Weddings and events are planned in conjunction with Elegance of London event planning business.
In reopening the facility, Robinson said he found little guidance specifically related to a historic, non-auditorium-style theater space.
“We’re not a movie theater,” he said. “We’re more of an event hall, but we host shows too with food and dancing. No one had any guidance or direction for us, so we followed the guidelines set by the CDC for an event hall.”
Robinson, who also manages and performs with the group NFocus, said area entertainers are excited to get back on stage and audiences are ready to be entertained again.
“Going to shows and listening to music is a time to relax and forget your worries for a while,” he said. “Over the past few months, I think people have missed that.”