Hutchinson: No Decision Yet on Unemployment Extension

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LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday said he needs more guidance before he’ll decide whether the state will help pay for extending unemployment benefits under an executive order President Donald Trump signed last week.

Hutchinson said it will cost about $265 million for the state to pay for a quarter of the $400 a week unemployment benefit, but that it would require legislative approval. The number of coronavirus cases in the state since the start of the pandemic surpassed 50,000 on Monday.

“The state of Arkansas can make that happen, but it would be challenging and would take some time,” Hutchinson said. “We will have to adjust some of our priorities.”

Trump announced an executive order Saturday that extends additional unemployment payments of $400 a week to help cushion the economic fallout of the pandemic. Congress had approved payments of $600 a week at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, but those benefits expired Aug. 1 and Congress has been unable to agree on an extension. About 120,000 people in Arkansas would benefit from extending the unemployment payments.

Hutchinson said the state has $250 million in federal coronavirus relief funds set aside in reserve it could tap into. The state could reallocate coronavirus funds in other areas, he said.

Hutchinson said part of the guidance Arkansas and other states need is whether the funds rellocated to pay for the unemployment payments would later be replenished.

The Department of Health said at least 50,028 people in the state have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 645 new confirmed cases since Sunday. The department 7,343 of them active, meaning they don’t include people who have died or recovered.

The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick. 

The number of people who have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, rose by 11 to 555. The state said several of those deaths were late reports and did not occur in the last 24 hours. The number of people hospitalized decreased by six to 508. 

The Arkansas Education Association on Monday also called on the state to begin with virtual-only rather than in-person instruction when the school year begins later this month. State education officials have said schools can offer virtual instruction or a blended approach that also includes some in-person classes, but have said schools must be open five days a week for students.

“While we agree in-person education is the best thing for students, moving kids and educators in and out of school based on isolation and quarantine protocols will be too risky and too disruptive to the teaching and learning environment,” Carol Fleming, the group’s president, said.

Other groups, including the Little Rock teachers union and the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, have also opposed a return in in-person classes this fall. Hutchinson again stood by the state’s plans.

“We’re trying to put in all the measures necessary to give teachers confidence and I fully understand from the letters I get, the communication I have with teachers, the concern that they have, but I know the schools are doing everything they can to make it a safe environment, and that’s the direction we need to continue to go,” he said.

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