With widespread suffering after Hurricane Ida, Gov. John Bel Edwards faces renewed pressure to retroactively reinstate five weeks worth of pandemic jobless benefits, a move that could send $1,500 checks to more than 150,000 Louisiana residents.
Congressman Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, on Wednesday called on the Democratic governor to restore the benefits, arguing in a letter that he has the power to "provide relief to Louisianans who desperately need help" in the storm's catastrophic aftermath.
The benefits were made available by Congress until Labor Day, but Edwards ordered Louisiana to stop accepting them effective July 31 in exchange for support from GOP state lawmakers for a permanent $28 boost to the state's regular weekly unemployment checks, beginning in 2022.
When Edwards agreed to the compromise back in June, the pandemic was at a standstill and business owners complained that the payments encouraged workers to stay home. Since then, the landscape has shifted dramatically.
COVID-19 has surged in the state, flooding Louisiana's hospitals with record numbers of patients. And on Aug. 29, Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana's southeastern coast, peeling off roofs and dismantling homes from Port Fourchon up through the Mississippi border.
"Thousands of Louisianans are looking for ways to pay for hotel rooms, gas, and basic necessities at this very moment," Carter wrote in his letter. "Many of those people are either in homes without power or were without power for a significant amount of time. Many more had damage to their homes or have been faced with unexpected costs in the last two weeks."
The federal programs provided a $300-a-week boost to state unemployment benefits, and extended jobless aid to gig-workers, self-employed contractors, and residents who had exceeded the the state's 26-week-long limit on collecting benefits.
Together, more than 150,000 Louisianans got booted off the benefits early, and thousands more had their jobless aid slashed in half.
When asked on his monthly call-in show Wednesday about reinstating the federal benefits, Edwards launched into an explanation of the legislative compromise and encouraged survivors of the storm to instead sign up for disaster unemployment.
"There was legislation that was passed in the most recent session of the Legislature where we got a permanent weekly benefit increase, the first one, I think, in more than a decade, but it also called for ending the enhanced federal benefits early," Edwards said. "I signed the bill into law so that has passed now and September 6th has passed."
The U.S. Department of Labor issued a memo earlier this month letting states know that they have until Oct. 6 to restore the federal benefits.
If Edwards doesn't reinstate the benefits, there's a chance the courts might.
A group of six unemployed women filed a lawsuit at the end of July arguing that Edwards didn't have the authority under state law to reject the benefits. Their arguments mirrored those in several other states where court challenges were successful.
In August, a Baton Rouge district court judge determined that ending the federal benefits early would undoubtedly cause "irreparable harm," but rejected the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction restoring the benefits because he wasn't convinced the case would be successful at trial.
On Tuesday, the plaintiffs appealed that decision to Louisiana's First Circuit Court of Appeal. A hearing on the matter has not been scheduled.
Wendy Manard, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that since that initial hearing the lead plaintiff, Autumn Young, died from COVID. Another plaintiff lost her home to Hurricane Ida and others have been displaced by the storm.
"All of my plaintiffs have been through so much, whether it's being affected by Ida or COVID-19," Manard said. "They're just a sampling of the whole Louisiana community."
In his letter to Edwards, Carter argued that reinstating the benefits will help residents pay for basic necessities, like food and shelter.
"Providing resources to those in need is the definition of neighbor helping neighbor," Carter wrote. "It's truly being a Good Samaritan, human, and Louisianan."