William Kenneth Walker, a bartender at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, told the Louisiana House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee Friday that the decision to convert the convention center into a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients means that he doesn’t think he’ll be going back to work “no time soon.”
“And at the same time,” Walker said, “my rent is $783 and plus my bills come up to $300. So that’s way over a thousand dollars.” Congress responded to the coronavirus pandemic and its debilitating effects on employment by adding $600 to the amount each individual state pays its residents in unemployment insurance. That money is scheduled to run out, and if it does, Walker told the committee, “I would be making $51 a week, and that would put me on the street and cause another issue of me being homeless.”
Walker was at the Louisiana State Capitol to support a resolution by Rep. Ted James, a Democrat from Baton Rouge. James’ resolution would have the Louisiana Legislature express the opinion that Congress should extend the $600 payments beyond its late July deadline.
But the majority committee showed little concern for Walker or for Louise Francis, a grandmother who said she received lots of overtime as a convention hotel banquet cook. Or for TaShyra Marshall, a single mother who hasn’t been able to figure out how she can afford the laptop or internet service her children will need for remote learning. Without saying, “I’m sorry” or “I know this must be tough for you” or expressing any words of comfort to the witnesses who’d shared stories of their hardships, the 10 Republicans on the committee voted against James’ resolution. The four Democrats were all in favor.
The Republican members who spoke about James’ resolution used their time to express concern for the state’s business owners. “I’m just not sure this sends the right message,” Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican, said to James about his resolution. Seabaugh acknowledged that the resolution was symbolic. Even so, he said, “I don’t think keeping people on unemployment is the answer. I think re-opening the economy, reopening business, getting people back to work is the answer.”
With coronavirus cases in Louisiana trending up and not down and Gov. John Bel Edwards wisely deciding against proceeding to the next re-opening phase, it makes little sense for Republican lawmakers to argue against extended unemployment benefits or for them to push for a speedier return to businesses operating at full capacity. But that’s what they’ve been doing.
On the Illuminator’s first day of publication, senior reporter Julie O’Donoghue reported that the Louisiana Legislature had mostly responded to the pandemic by ignoring suffering individuals to give aid and comfort to businesses. Thursday’s Labor and Industrial Relations Committee hearing was yet another reminder of the Legislature’s priorities.
Earlier in the meeting, James had presented a resolution asking the committee to study whether Louisiana should increase the maximum $247 per week it provides in unemployment compensation and whether it should make more Louisianians eligible for unemployment, “such as workers who are low-income, gig, undocumented, or self-employed.” The maximum $247 weekly unemployment benefit Louisiana provides is the third lowest in the nation.
But the Republicans didn’t find that number embarrassing or even concerning, and that resolution failed. Rep. Larry Frieman, an Abita Springs Republican, said, ”Either way — paying more or expansion — is going to cost businesses more and while people are suffering, our businesses are suffering, too, so I think this is a dangerous slope in my opinion.”
During the debate about James’ resolution to ask Congress to extend its Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, Blake Miguez, chair of the Louisiana Republican Delegation, also expressed concern for struggling businesses and asked that James look at both sides of the issue.
“I’m going to ask you to look at both sides of it,” James responded, pointing out that the Legislature had given businesses “tax benefit after tax benefit” but had paid little attention to the people who are necessary to “stand those businesses up.” He told Miguez, “We can’t have one conversation without the other.”
But there’s an unemployed convention center bartender, an unemployed banquet cook and an unemployed single mother who tried to have that conversation with the committee’s Republicans, and those members refused to have it.