If $600 checks from Washington disappear, unemployed workers will have to make do with state’s amount

The maximum provided by Louisiana is $247/week

In this January 2019 file photo from the U.S. Capitol, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (3rd R) speaks to members of the media as (L-R) Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) listen. (Photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images)

CORRECTION: A new Illuminator story has been published explaining that self-employed workers in Louisiana are entitled to a fraction of the $600 they’d been getting and, therefore, won’t see their checks fall to zero.  Also, the headline of this story has been edited for accuracy.

 

The expiration of the $600 supplement that the federal government has been adding to unemployment checks means that more 300,000 Louisiana workers are about to see their checks fall to the amount that Louisiana itself provides. Louisiana pays no more than $247 a week, a maximum amount that’s the third lowest in the United States. However, the average weekly unemployment payout in the state is $216.

But according to data from Greg Albrecht, the state’s chief economist, another 152,000 Louisianians who had been getting the $600 from the federal government will drop to zero. These are workers who’ve qualified for help from Washington but don’t qualify for help from Baton Rouge. They make up a third of the unemployed Louisianians who’ve been receiving checks.

“The federal law made gig workers eligible,” Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said Thursday.  While people might think of gig workers as musicians or other kinds of artists, Moller said that universe of workers includes the woman who drives Uber or the neighborhood guy who works as a handyman.

Those folks “are not eligible for a dollar from the state,” Moller said, “but were getting $600 from Washington. Now that’s going away.”

The U.S. House, which is controlled by Democrats, previously passed a coronavirus recovery bill that extends the $600 payments into 2021, but the Republican-controlled Senate adjourned Friday without meeting a deadline to extend the benefits or even introducing a proposal.

Monday afternoon, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) dismissed the Democrats’ plan as a “multi-trillion-dollar socialist manifesto” and announced a plan that would cap the federal portion of unemployment checks at 70 percent of a worker’s weekly pay. States would have until Oct. 5 to switch to a new system, and in the meantime the federal government would cut its share of checks to $200.

Even if a bipartisan plan eventually emerges, there will be a gap in benefits for people who have been depending on those federal payments to eat and pay rent and their other bills.

At a July 16 virtual town hall hosted by Step Up Louisiana, Stacey Guidry, who had been working as a concierge in New Orleans, said she’ll only receive $203 a week if the federal portion goes away and with that small amount won’t be able to afford to evacuate for a hurricane if that becomes necessary. “I’m a Republican,” Guidry said. “I don’t want to hear the Democrats are at fault. I don’t want to hear that Republicans are at fault.” She said she just wanted a solution.

However, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-New Orleans) told Guidry that it’s important that she and others know “where to focus your efforts.” Referring to an extension of the $600 into January, Richmond said, “We have done the hard work of getting it out of the House.”

Richmond also mentioned the high number of Louisianians who don’t qualify for money from the state: “We have so many gig workers,” he said. “We have so many people who are independent contractors.”

During a June 25 hearing of the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, state Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) urged the Republican-controlled committee to consider expanding eligibility so that more Louisianians can apply for unemployment and to consider raising the amount that Louisianians can receive. However, Republicans on that committee wouldn’t consider it. They said what James was proposing was too expensive and might discourage people from returning to work.

It’s alarming to me that we are the third lowest,” James said, “a state that has very high poverty. A state where we are prone to having some type of disaster that impacts us more than it impacts other states.”  James said he was glad the federal government stepped in, “but a weekly benefit of about $240, I don’t think that’s sufficient for any of our districts if folks are laid off especially for something like a natural disaster or another public health emergency.”

James also asked Republicans on that committee to approve a resolution expressing the opinion that Congress ought to extend the $600 payments. In another party-line vote, that idea was also rejected.

Moller said Louisiana’s “average weekly benefit of $216 is the lowest in the country when measured as a percentage of the median wage.” He said, “Mississippi might have a lower weekly benefit, but they also have a lower median wage.”

Unemployment checks in Louisiana are “totally inadequate to keep a family above water,” Moller said. “So the $600 a week is really what has been keeping hundreds of thousands Louisianians afloat.”

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry, editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.