Louisiana’s low unemployment benefits leave residents choosing which bill to pay

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Soon after the novel coronavirus was detected in Louisiana in March 2020, Dora Whitfield found herself in completely unfamiliar territory:  unemployed for the first time in 32 years. At The Buffet at Harrah’s — where she’d been working since 2001 — she was making $600-700 a week just in tips.

When she filed for unemployment and saw she’d only receive $221 a week, she was shocked, she said by phone Tuesday. “I made what I get from unemployment in a day,” she said. The sharp decline in her income meant she had to make some tough choices for her family.

“What do I do with this $100?” she had to ask herself. “Do I keep the lights on or do I keep the water on?”

Whitfield’s unemployment experience is not unique in Louisiana. Since February 2020, almost one in five low-wage workers in the state has lost his or her job. And according to a report released Tuesday by Step Up Louisiana, an organization ”for economic and education justice in the South, “Louisiana consistently has the lowest average unemployment weekly benefit payout of any state between $180-$210 since March 2020.”

Whitfield is Black, and Step Up’s report found that Black workers were also 2.7 times more likely during the pandemic to lose their jobs than White workers, Step Up’s report found. On a panel Tuesday morning hosted by Step Up, Elizabeth Pancotti, a policy director at Employ America, said Black workers — along with Latino and indigenous workers — often make up large percentages of the service, leisure and hospitality workforce. She said they’re “often the first fired and the last hired” during economic recessions.

Pancotti said Louisiana also ranks in the bottom third in unemployment relief payments sent out “in a timely manner.”

The report recommends federalizing the unemployment system instead of having states manage their own systems.

“There are 53 state systems set up right now and not a single one is adequately serving workers,” Pancotti said. “It’s truly a shame that we have 53 separate systems that can all screw it up in their own way and the lack of federal oversight and the lack of federal standards in these programs is really, I think, the root cause of this issue.”

Pancotti said she hopes the last year has served as “a real wakeup call to policy makers that they bear some responsibility in this and need to take charge to change it.”

Rachel Deutsch, a supervising attorney for the Center for Popular Democracy, said establishing strong federal standards for unemployment benefits is “a racial justice imperative.”

The lack of federal oversight in unemployment programs has historically contributed to the country’s racial wealth gap, she said, as states like Louisiana and Mississippi that have higher percentages of Black workers tend to have worse unemployment benefits than states like Massachuettes that have better unemployment benefits and high percentages of White workers.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect the folks in Louisiana to fight their way through a statehouse that is so unresponsive to working people’s needs,” Deutsch said. “We have to have federal leadership to fix this problem.”

Whitfield said her time off sitting around at home has affected her mental and physical health too. Since she was laid off, Whitfield developed arthritis in her shoulder, so she said she’s been trying to get healthy and look for work, but “you can’t go look for a job in hospitality, because everything on Bourbon Street is closed.”

“It’s like, you don’t want to get up because you’re in this depressed daze because you’re so used to having money to pay your bills,” Whitefield said. “To know, you don’t have anything to pay your bills.”