Louisiana turns off federal unemployment pandemic aid

Louisiana ended federal pandemic unemployment aid for its residents Saturday, booting nearly 200,000 people off benefits and cutting the payments to thousands more in the middle of a worsening COVID-19 surge across the state.

Louisiana residents will no longer receive an extra $300 a week on top of the state’s maximum $247 benefit. The state also stopped participating in the federal program giving unemployment money to self-employed workers and gig workers who are ineligible for state benefits. Additionally, it’s ending federal assistance that allowed people to get jobless benefits past a 26-week state cap.

The benefits were available until early September. But Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, is ending the aid five weeks early, in a deal with Republican lawmakers that will permanently raise state unemployment benefits by $28 a week, starting in six months.

With the early end to the pandemic programs, about 194,500 people in Louisiana will see their unemployment aid cut off entirely. Another 47,000 who can keep receiving jobless benefits will see the assistance sliced by more than half, according to data provided by the state’s labor department, the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

Louisiana is joining two dozen Republican-led states that already have scrapped the federal unemployment aid before its Sept. 6 expiration date. Edwards is the first Democratic governor to end the jobless benefits early. Edwards said he was trying to find a “reasonable balance” between helping the jobless and assisting businesses having trouble finding workers. Louisiana’s unemployment rate was just under 7% in June, higher than 40 other states, according to federal data.

“Our core mission has always been putting people back to work, but that is more important now than ever,” Workforce Commission Secretary Ava Cates said in a statement. “What matters right now is helping people provide for themselves and their families and making sure Louisiana comes back stronger than ever.”

Jan Moller, executive director of the left-leaning Louisiana Budget Project, which advocates for low- to moderate-income families, called the tradeoff with Republican lawmakers and business organizations “ugly politics that assumes people are lazy and unwilling to work.” He said Louisiana’s economy was hit harder because of its over-reliance on tourism and oil industry jobs.

“People forget that to be on unemployment in the first place you have to have lost your job through no fault of your own. You can’t just quit your job and have the government send you a check,” Moller said. “And when you’re on unemployment, you have to look for a job.”

The stripping of federal unemployment aid comes as Louisiana has one of the nation’s worst surges in coronavirus cases, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant and the state’s low rates of vaccination against the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.

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