| Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate
With enhanced federal unemployment benefits for roughly 450,000 Louisianans now expired, the pathetic state of affairs in Washington is getting much of the attention.
Rightfully so. Senate Republicans and the Trump administration sat on their hands for more than two months after the Democratic House passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package that extended the $600 weekly federal contribution. Even now, they can’t agree among themselves on a counterproposal, despite some of the worst economic news in decades and amid more difficult but necessary public health restrictions. Meanwhile, the people they represent are facing the reality of relying on what states have to offer.
So maybe it’s time to talk about the lay of the land in states like Louisiana, where the available help has never looked less sufficient.
Louisianans who lose their jobs through no fault of their own — something that happens even when the there’s no pandemic — can qualify for a maximum state benefit of just $247 per week.
But not all out-of-work Louisianans. Unemployment payments, financed by taxes on employers, are usually only available to those who have a traditional employee setup, not independent contractors in the ever-growing gig economy. These people have been able to tap into the federal $600, though, and will be eligible for a portion of the state benefit through the end of the year. So that’s something.
Still, depending on which measure you choose, Louisiana’s either one of the stingiest states in the nation or the stingiest. The maximum benefit comes out to just over $6 an hour for a 40-hour week, less than the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which is already poverty level. The payment’s the same for people who live in inexpensive rural areas and for those who reside in New Orleans, where the National Low Income Housing Coalition recently found that it takes $20.73 an hour to comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment.
A lot of people, in normal times, don’t get that small sum at all. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, just over 10% of unemployed Louisianans were able to access benefits in the quarter just before pandemic, the fourth-lowest rate in the nation.
And it could soon get worse. The way Louisiana’s program is structured, a drain on the trust fund triggers higher taxes for employers, many of whom are struggling mightily in the downturn, as well as lower benefits that would top out at only $221 a week. Gov. John Bel Edwards has sought relief from the federal government to keep that from happening.
Presumably the folks in Washington will eventually get their act together and extend some level of enhanced unemployment, even if it’s not the full $600. It is an election year.
Still, the desperate situation that Louisiana workers are now facing shouldn’t be lost on anyone, particularly on those who make laws in Baton Rouge.
Congress isn’t taking care of business now, but the Louisiana Legislature has spent years looking the other way while the safety net has frayed, and the inadequate level of unemployment insurance is just one example. There’s also the Legislature’s failure to require paid sick leave, despite the clear lesson from the pandemic that people who can’t afford to take time off often show up to work while sick, and can infect others. Congress put a bandage on the situation by approving sick leave for COVID-19 patients through the end of the year, but that doesn’t address what happens when workers get, say, the flu.
And there’s the Legislature’s long-running refusal to raise the minimum wage even the modest amount that Edwards has sought. His two victories, state polls, and the experiences of other conservative states all speak to the popularity of the idea, and higher wages would certainly give more people the ability to weather disaster. And yet, while lawmakers are right there when businesses seek relief, they’ve repeatedly rejected a minimum wage increase.
Instead, they keep clinging to a trickle-down philosophy that hasn’t worked nationally and doesn’t work locally — not during pandemics and not during ordinary times.
It took a crisis to shine a public spotlight on these preexisting inadequacies; the take-away for responsible lawmakers should be that getting back to normal just isn’t going to be good enough.
— Stephanie Grace is a columnist for The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.