Without the $600 added to unemployment checks, I don’t know how my family will survive

Our family can’t survive on the small amount Louisiana pays

On July 22, Step Up Louisiana participated in a caravan to the offices of U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, both Republicans, with messages on their cars urging them to protect the $600 payments that unemployed workers have been receiving from the federal government. (Photo courtesy of Step Up Louisiana)

By Travis Smith

Congress will soon be debating legislation that will determine if families like mine will be able to stay above water. My wife and I are both unemployed and blessed to have been receiving the Pandemic Unemployed Compensation from the CARES Act introduced in March. It has been a tremendous help while we don’t have income coming in – because the bills haven’t stopped. That additional $600 is expiring,  but my family and millions of families around the country need it extended for the duration of the crisis.

I’ve been a professional chef in New Orleans since 1999, and before the pandemic hit I was cooking at Chophouse New Orleans. I absolutely love my job, and I love cooking for people – serving up a perfectly cooked medium-rare T-bone makes me very happy. (That’s my favorite because you get both the sirloin and the fillet.)

But when the new coronavirus began spreading throughout the country in March, I knew I needed to put my family first. My wife and I have seven children, and I simply couldn’t risk my health and potentially my life. I work around a lot of people in close quarters. There’s no way I could avoid the virus in the kitchen. I talked to management and took some time off. A few days later, for everybody’s safety, the Chophouse closed down.

Travis Smith

I would love to be able to safely return to work, but even if I could right now, how many people are there to cook for? The state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans rely heavily on tourism. Hotel occupancy is under 10 percent  this summer. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has cancelled all major events until 2021 and there may not even be Mardi Gras. People are hardly travelling now because it isn’t safe, and I can’t blame them. The Chophouse reopened with a limited staff preparing mostly take-out orders on July 15. They never even called me, and I had no idea until Monday that they had reopened. There just isn’t a job for me to go back to at the moment. Thousands of Louisianians have no jobs to go back to.

Louisiana provides some of  the lowest unemployment benefits in the country, a maximum of just $247 per week. Without the additional $600, I don’t know how we would get by. On July 15, I joined dozens of other Louisiana workers at a Step Up Louisiana virtual town hall to let our representatives in Washington know just how crucial the$600 is to helping us make it through this crisis. Anyone who saw that town hall knows just how important that money is to Louisiana families and families across the country.

If I could say one thing to our Republican senators, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, it would be this: Put your egos down. Do your job for the people who helped you all get elected. Your party unveiled its proposal Monday, and it’s definitely not enough. Pass an extension of the $600 until this crisis is over. Think about the people in this state. We don’t have jobs to go to right now, and our families can’t survive on a maximum of $247 per week. So it’s time to do your job.

I promise you, if you keep the $600 extended so my family and I can remain safe and healthy through this crisis, I’ll be right back preparing New Orleans’ best steaks – and I’ll gladly cook them for you, senators. 

Travis Smith is an unemployed hospitality worker in New Orleans and a member of Step Up Louisiana.