By Kathleen Peppo of the LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE – A House committee on Thursday shot down three resolutions related to unemployment benefits as members debated how much aid should go to businesses versus workers as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Only one resolution, a measure to study ways to reduce wait times for unemployment benefits, advanced through the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said he brought the resolutions because the pandemic had affected employees across the state.
The resolution that advanced seeks to find a way for the Louisiana Workforce Commission to limit the lengthy wait times that citizens who file unemployment claims are facing.
James said that the system has been overloaded, and his resolution urges the Workforce Commission to address this issue.
The committee rejected the other three resolutions that James brought. One called for a study of the feasibility of increasing unemployment compensation amounts and expanding unemployment compensation eligibility.
Another asked Congress to continue to provide more unemployment benefits to Louisiana citizens. The last asked the Louisiana Workforce Commission to study and clarify the definitions of “good cause for job separation” and “suitable work protections.”
Reps. Ed Larvadain III, D-Alexandria, and Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, spoke in favor of the resolutions.
In the ones focused on state government, he said, “All we’re doing is asking for a study. If the study comes back and says this is not the right time, then the committee will say, ‘Hey, this is not the right time.”
Larvadain said many of his constituents are unable to return to work because of circumstances out of their control.
James said that he wants to consider the poverty rankings in Louisiana and the types of jobs that we have.
“Here, we have a very strong tourism industry, drastically impacted by not just COVID but by natural disasters,” James said. “What happens with oil and gas, up and down all the time, that impacts us,” James said. “With our economy being so diverse, whenever there’s some type of issue, we’re hit harder than other states. So I’d like for us to do a very broad search of what other states are doing.”
“Thank God the federal government came in and aided us this time,” he said.
Rep. Larry Frieman, R-Abita Springs, opposed the resolutions.
Referring to any increase in unemployment benefits, he said, “I think, either way, in paying more, an expansion is going to cost businesses more. While our people are suffering, our businesses are suffering, too. This is a dangerous slope in my opinion.”
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, told James that “this is one of those things that we’re going to have to add to that long list of things you and I disagree on.”
“I’ve had numerous emails from business owners in my districts who are trying to reopen and can’t get their employees to come back,” Seabaugh said. “I don’t think keeping people on unemployment is the answer. I think that reopening the economy, reopening businesses, getting people back to work is the answer.”
Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, also voiced opposition to the resolutions.
“I saw on the news this morning, here in Baton Rouge, they had a restaurant owner who owns four restaurants that are well known. He had to close two of them because he’s having issues,” Miguez said. He said the owner could not pay workers as much as they are receiving from extra federal unemployment benefits that will expire next month.
“The solution is to get people back to work as quickly as possible,” said Miguez.
James noted that the legislative body has “done a lot to help these businesses.”
“It sounds great to say, ‘Let’s reopen the economy.’ I’d like for things to go back to normal more than anyone. But, that’s not the reality we’re facing.”
“The concern is you put people back to work and people get sick,” said James, citing Tigerland bar workers as an example.
Before the final resolution was shot down by Republican members, Phelps urged her fellow legislators to consider voting in favor of it, knowing that her request would fall on “deaf ears.”
Noting that lawmakers are planning to provide various types of businesses with tens of millions of dollars in aid becazuse of the virus, Phelps said, “We’ve done all we could for our businesses. Since we’ve returned, I’ve said, ‘Where is the balance between the employees–the people–and the businesses?’”