NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Demonstrators rallied at separate events Thursday to demand continued $600 federal coronavirus unemployment benefits and to put an end to evictions, as the economic fallout from the pandemic continued to take a toll on residents.
More than two dozen unemployed workers chanted and held signs outside the New Orleans-area offices of two U.S. senators, calling on them to keep the federal unemployment money that is set to expire Friday at $600.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proposed cutting the benefit to $200 a week, which would be in addition to state unemployment pay. Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy of Louisiana both said Thursday that they support extending the federal benefit but have not settled on a specific figure.
“I am committed to whatever is needed to support families through this crisis,” Cassidy said. He said any solution “must dovetail with economic recovery.”
“If there are no jobs, that’s one thing,” he said. “But if there are jobs, that’s another.”
In a news release Wednesday, protest organizers from numerous labor unions and activist groups said that reducing the benefit “would sever a critical lifeline at a time when coronavirus cases are spiking, businesses continue to face mass closures, and whole industries have been decimated.”
One of those joining the protests was Shaun Mills, 41, a line cook for a sports bar at Harrah’s New Orleans casino, which was shut down because of the pandemic. The casino reopened in June at 25% capacity, but Mills said he was told it would have to be operating at more than 50% to bring him back to work.
“I’ve been working since I was 16, paying taxes into the system,” Mills said during the first protest, outside Kennedy’s office in New Orleans. “I need that money just to make it.”
Shan Grimm, a musician who goes by Musicmovesme, said the bar where she was general manager laid off the entire staff. Another musician had to sell the house she rents, she said.
She said the new owner has been very nice, but “I am in limbo.”
Stacey Guidry, a hotel concierge before the pandemic, said she’s a Republican and generally a fiscal conservative, but she believes the payments are essential.
She said $600 a week does boost her unemployment pay to more than she was earning — something opponents of extending the payment have pointed to as a disincentive for employees to return to work — but only because the minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 to $7.50 since 2009. “That’s unconscionable,” she said.
Louisiana’s June unemployment rate was 9.7%, compared with 4.6% last year.
A full day of unemployment payment rallies was scheduled around the state.
In front of New Orleans’ First City Court, where eviction proceedings are held, dozens of demonstrators protested the fact that people are being evicted while the coronavirus pandemic is still raging.
Earlier in the pandemic, a statewide moratorium protected renters from eviction, but that expired June 15. Shouting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, eviction court has got to go,” they blocked people from entering the court. A smaller group also prevented people from going into the main entrance of City Hall next door.
Frank Southall, an organizer with the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly, said evicted people are often moving in with elderly family members or other people, which he said could raise the risk of spreading the virus.
“We hear phone calls all the time from people who are just in tears, who literally don’t want to go live with their elderly family members because they don’t want to get them sick,” Southall said. He said he would like to see more money spent to keep people in their homes and provide rent assistance that would also help out landlords. “These are things we need to do to ensure safety,” he said.
The state’s seven-day average for new confirmed cases had fallen into the 300-to-400 range in May but has ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 since June 23, according to data posted online by state health officials.
As of Thursday, the state had confirmed the coronavirus in 114,481 people — up more than 1,700 from Wednesday — 3,811 of whom have died. Hospitals were treating 1,524 COVID-19 patients, 205 of them on ventilators.
As rising numbers of hospitalized patients strained hospitals, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide mask order and closed bars statewide earlier this month. More recently, he extended that order at least until Aug. 7.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.