The last time Will Walker worked a bartending shift, he was slinging drinks at the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s annual ball at the Ernest Morial Convention Center.
Within a few weeks, hundreds of makeshift hospital beds for coronavirus patients filled the convention center and Walker’s bartending gigs there and at the Superdome were a distant memory.
Unemployment benefits eased the crash, at least briefly. While Louisiana pays among the lowest benefits in the country, capped at $247 a week, a federal expansion of benefits added another $600 to each weekly payout for the first few months. That buoyed household incomes, and even expanded some of them, as the national economy collapsed and previously unfathomable numbers of workers lost their jobs.
The extra $600 disappeared at the end of July, though it was briefly replaced with another federal stop-gap boost of $300 a week for many workers, courtesy of an executive order from President Donald Trump. But that benefit ended in mid-September after six weeks, leaving hundreds of thousands of Louisianans to scrape by on $247 or less each week as they hunt for jobs in an economy that has started to rebound, but is still badly damaged.
A new and growing wave of coronavirus outbreaks across the country, which have pushed cases and hospitalizations to record levels, now threatens to deal another massive blow to the economy. Louisiana has so far fared better than most other states in the latest coronavirus wave. But public health officials have begun sounding the alarm here as well; infections began ticking upward last week.
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Without action from Congress, even the modest jobless benefits Louisianans who have been unemployed since March are still getting will vanish in about six weeks. On Dec. 26, a slew of federal coronavirus relief programs that extended unemployment benefits for those who’d exhausted their eligibility or wouldn’t normally qualify will run out.
Seen through only a narrow and short-term lens, current unemployment claims figures in Louisiana might at first blush look like a dose of encouragement. Earlier this year, claims were at jaw-dropping levels, with about one of every four workers in the state filing for unemployment benefits; since then, the volume of jobless claims has dropped by about 20%, according to state data.
But take a look under the hood and the picture is far more cloudy. Despite the improving numbers, more than 370,000 Louisianans were still filing claims for unemployment benefits at the end of October, a raw total that is still about 25 times the number of claims the state was handling at this time last year.
Two-thirds of those claims are set to expire just after Christmas. In October, more than 130,000 Louisianans filed claims under a special federal program for those who’d already exhausted the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance eligibility allowed under state law, a number that is still rising sharply as more people hit the 26-week mark.
Another 120,000 gig workers, freelancers and other workers who were given special eligibility for benefits will also be cut off.
After the New Year, unemployed workers will be largely at the mercy of Congress, said Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, which runs the unemployment system in the state.
Her department has no authority to extend further aid. Benefits are locked in under state law, and claims this year have already exhausted the state’s unemployment trust fund,forcing Louisiana to take out more than $100 million in loans from the federal government to pay claims.
“Once someone has drawn their 26 weeks of unemployment, our system isn’t set up to pay anybody past that,” said Dejoie.
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There’s currently little sign that the economy — even if the rising wave of coronavirus infections doesn’t force a renewed round of business closures — is poised to roar back in time to hire more than a fraction of the scores of workers who lost jobs in the past nine months.
Even the halting progress so far may be partly a mirage. Gary Wagner, an economics professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the drop in the national unemployment rate doesn’t appear to be driven by a hiring spree at businesses.
“Nationally, most of the reduction we’ve seen is people exiting the labor force,” Wagner said. “To me, the most plausible story is that people have given up hope looking for a job and have dropped out of the labor force.”
The pandemic and the uncertain business conditions it creates is keeping a major damper on the economy and pushing many companies and families to put off investments, Wagner said. If Congress doesn’t pass a federal relief package, that will prolong the recovery, he said.
“It’s hard to know when economic activity is going to return to anything that seems like normal,” said Wagner.
The improvement will be put at risk by the sharp resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Walker, 52, had relied on his bartending shifts — which could bring in sizable tips on top of a $12-an-hour wage — to support himself as he completed his bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of New Orleans. But he hasn’t had one since February.
As a part-time worker, he qualifies for just $51 per week in unemployment benefits, and even that meager benefit will run out in December. Section 8 housing subsidies have kept the rent on his New Orleans East apartment paid, but Walker said he’s been falling behind on other bills.
“I have several interviews for bartending positions. I tried to extend my hospitality service because I have a cooking degree. I do have waiter experience and people skills,” said Walker. “But that doesn’t qualify me in a world that is suffering in corona: Jobs are not opening up, jobs are going out of business.”
Walker finished his degree, but after months of unemployment, he does not have the hundreds of dollars necessary to cover the fees, background check and other expenses to get registered to practice and land a job.
“The $51 is just enough to eat off of, it’s not enough to register as a social worker. If I could register as a social worker, I could maybe find a job,” said Walker. “I have never been in this situation: I’ve always been a work addict. I’ve worked two or three jobs at a time to sustain myself and because I liked to travel.”
Walker said he’s kept up volunteer advocacy work around AIDS, economic relief and other issues — something he credited with keeping himself busy and sane — but he hasn’t been able to land a paying job. He’s now contemplating going back to school for a master’s degree in hopes that the economy will have bounced back by the time he graduates.
Heather has lived through the steady dwindling of unemployment aid since her job working in tourism in New Orleans vanished in mid-March. She has grown increasingly frustrated following the political bickering in Congress over whether to extend more aid.
Heather, 49, who asked that her last name not be used due to privacy concerns, weathered the first several months of the pandemic without trouble. The $600 federal boost to unemployment benefits meant her weekly income actually ticked above what she had been making in her job working with international visitors.
Heather said she socked away just about everything she could in hopes of either buying a car or moving from the West Bank into the city to be closer to potential hospitality jobs. Relying on the bus to commute into the city seemed like a dicey proposition in a pandemic, she reasoned.
But her savings have diminished as her weekly benefits shrank, withering from nearly $3,000 to “almost nothing.” Her bank balance is down to $167.93. She’s kept applying for jobs, and even landed a few interviews, but said prospects in the areas where she has experience — retail, hospitality, tourism — are bleak with the virus still on the move.
“I’m pretty good at living off of cabbage soup and eggs and that’s what I’ll do,” Heather said. “It’s not like I don’t want to be working, but COVID keeps surging and my transportation situation is not good. That really limits my options. Honestly, after eight months of this, my confidence is shot. It’s been a rollercoaster nightmare of what’s open and how long it’ll be open. (…) It’s hard to feel confident about making plans.”