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Louisiana Ending Jobless Aid Early as COVID Surges

Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed to a July 31 cutoff for the federally assisted unemployment benefits before the pandemic surged among the unvaccinated. Now the state’s economy is again closing, this time without financial help.

(TNS) — When Sandra Louis lost her job at the start of the pandemic, her first worry was how she would afford insulin to treat her diabetes. Even with health insurance, the life-saving medication costs her $1,500 a month, and Louisiana's meager unemployment benefits covered less than a third of that.

So, when Congress boosted state jobless benefits — first by $600 per week, later trimmed to $300 — the 65-year-old breathed a sigh of relief. Lately, those worries have returned.

This week, Louisiana stopped issuing unemployment checks to nearly 150,000 residents, or about 1 of every 30 state residents. The move marks the end of the state's participation in several federal aid programs five weeks ahead of their official expiration date.

Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed to a July 31 cutoff for the enhanced unemployment benefits back in June, when the pandemic was at a standstill and business owners were complaining that the payments were encouraging workers to stay home.

That landscape has changed dramatically. Now, the state is confronting its worst surge of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, economy-boosting events like New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival are shutting down, and thousands of Louisianans like Louis are suddenly without a financial lifeline.

This month, Louis expects to go without insulin.

"Hopefully my blood sugars don't go crazy on me and I'll survive it," said Louis. "The only person I can turn to right now is God."

Compounding her situation, five members of Louis' household are now infected with COVID-19, including her 3-month-old granddaughter.

"I can't even look for a job right now because we're supposed to be in quarantine," she said.

The extra benefits were made available by Congress until Sept. 6. But Edwards, a Democrat, agreed to cut them off five weeks early as part of a deal with Republican lawmakers that also included permanently raising Louisiana's paltry unemployment benefits by about 11 percent, or $28 a week, beginning next year.

A group of unemployed Louisiana residents filed a lawsuit at the end of July arguing that neither Edwards nor the Louisiana Workforce Commission have the authority to reject the federal benefits. Arguments will be heard in that case Thursday at a hearing before 19th Judicial District Judge Timothy Kelley in Baton Rouge.

Similar lawsuits have been lodged in other states that ended benefits early, and some have succeeded. Judges in Indiana, Maryland, and most recently, Oklahoma, have ordered states to resume paying the benefits.

When Edwards announced his support for the compromise in June, he said he was trying to strike a "reasonable balance" between helping the jobless and assisting businesses having trouble finding workers. He lauded the deal for providing the first increase to Louisiana unemployment benefits in decades. At just $247 a week, the state's maximum benefit is among the lowest in the nation.

"The good news out there is there are tens of thousands of jobs that are available today," Edwards said last week when asked about the wisdom of cutting off benefits amid a pandemic. "We do encourage people to reconnect with work."

Fallon Childress, a single mother of two, is still looking for one of those jobs. Before the pandemic struck, she managed a Fuddruckers at Harrah's in Bossier City, earning $13.75 an hour.

The 36-year-old applied to half a dozen jobs a week and said she's been hired plenty of times — but so far, no one has offered her more than 15 hours of work a week. She said a local Chipotle recently hired her after a brief group interview but could only offer her eight hours of work a week. Hobby Lobby gave her 10 hours a week.

"That's a waste of my time," Childress said. "I would literally have to find five or six jobs and get them to work around each other's schedules to make a living."

Childress wants to work, and bristles when she hears people say the $300-a-week boost is incentivizing laziness. With tips, she made far more working at Fuddruckers than she did collecting the $526 in weekly jobless benefits that recently expired.

"The only thing I can do right now is barely feed my children," Childress said, folding clothes and packing up boxes so she's ready if she gets evicted. "The governor is putting my children without a roof. You are putting us in poverty. You are putting us through hardships. There's about to be a lot of homeless people."

Ten business groups representing contractors, retailers, gas stations, restaurants, homebuilders and convenience stores sent a letter to Edwards in May urging him to nix the federal benefits, blaming the payments for a worker shortage.

"We believe this additional benefit was an important short-term solution to help individuals who were adversely impacted at the start of the pandemic," the groups wrote. "However, 13 months later, many employers are finding it near impossible to fully staff their business, which impacts the supply chain and timely delivery of goods and services."

Melody Rome, who lost her job cleaning homes at the start of the pandemic, said the idea that the enhanced benefits are keeping people from working is "a load of B.S." The 52-year-old from Port Allen said she submits anywhere from 10 to 20 job applications a day, but rarely hears back. At this point, she said she'll take any job she's offered.

"I can make more working than I can with $300 a week, but at least this $300 a week kept me afloat," Rome said. "There really isn't that much opportunity out there."

With COVID spreading like wildfire, Perry Monroe has no choice but to sit at home. The 64-year-old has numerous health conditions and even though he's vaccinated, his doctors have told him he's at risk of serious illness if he gets infected. Until this week, he collected benefits under a federal program for gig workers ineligible for traditional state benefits.

Before the pandemic, he played guitar and sang at a Bourbon Street venue where he made $1,200 in a typical week. He was set to perform at Jazz Fest, but that opportunity evaporated last week.

"I'm part of the pack that draws the tourists here, so you think they'd freakin' take care of me," Monroe said. "I don't want to sit at home. I'm a blues player. I'd rather be out winking at girls and playing the guitar."

Monroe said he's angry at those who didn't get vaccinated against COVID.

"They put me here," Monroe said. "This isn't about being lazy. This is about staying freakin' alive."

(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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