It's been two months since Randy Allen, a former baker and native of New Orleans, has received unemployment benefits from the state after being cut off without explanation. He's been trying to get them reinstated and hoping that happens, especially with the federal government now continuing a $300 per month payment to recipients.
For more than 161,400 residents across Louisiana who already receive benefits and may be eligible, the continuation of the $300 federal payment will be automatic, according to the Louisiana Workforce Commission. The agency said in a news release that it was already processing claims as of Monday, but declined an interview to elaborate.
Recipients are not expected to miss any stimulus payments, even though the federal program expired on Dec. 26 and a new law continuing it wasn't signed until Dec. 27. Message boards on the internet had some Louisiana recipients saying payments had already hit their bank accounts.
"After receiving official guidance from the (U.S. Department of Labor), we will work swiftly to administer these system changes," Ava Dejoie, secretary of the sate Workforce Commission, said in the press release.
The $300 per week extra payment program is expected to last until March 13. It is supposed to be on top of any state unemployment benefits, which means Louisiana recipients could receive up to $547 each week for 11 weeks — with $247 of that being the state maximum benefit.
Jobless benefits are vital for residents like Allen, a 61-year-old disabled U.S. Navy veteran. He filed for unemployment in June after searching for a job since March when the coffee shop he worked for shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, there were hardly any businesses hiring, so he filed for unemployment for the first time in his life, he said.
He received unemployment benefits for several months, but in October the payments stopped without explanation, he said. His military benefits cover rent, but he doesn't have money left for much else.
His cellphone has been shut off due to nonpayment. So he's been accessing the internet through Wi-Fi at Whole Foods to apply for jobs. He borrowed a cellphone at his apartment complex to do a phone interview.
"All my stuff is cut off; I'm barely surviving," he said.
In contrast to several months ago, there are more locations in the city hiring but he doesn't have money for bus fare or a vehicle, so he needs something within walking distance of his apartment.
"I haven't been denied or anything (for unemployment). I'm in progress is what it says, but it's been saying that since Oct. 18," Allen said. "I've sent them anything they've asked for several times. I've been more than patient."
Allen said he uploaded his identification with a selfie, as requested, to no avail. With the difficulties he's encountered, Allen's not confident that he'll get his state unemployment resumed much less the extra $300 federal payment.
Since March, the state has administered nearly $7 billion in unemployment claims across 700,000 individuals. Since Oct. 10, the state has paid more than $501 million in state unemployment benefits ranging between $30.4 million and $56.7 million each week, according to a public online dashboard. Much of that money is borrowed from the federal government since the state's unemployment trust fund ran dry in October.
The industries hardest hit are accommodation and food services, with about 9,600 individuals still unemployed, followed by more than 7,600 individuals who worked in health care and social assistance and another 7,000 who worked in retail before becoming unemployed.
In the New Orleans metro area, there are more than 15,200 individuals receiving traditional unemployment benefits, about 6,000 of whom live in Orleans Parish.
In the Baton Rouge metro area, there are more than 10,000 residents with unemployment claims, about 5,900 of them in East Baton Rouge Parish as of late December. In the Lafayette metro, there are nearly 7,000 residents seeking unemployment benefits, 2,700 of whom live in Lafayette Parish.
Of the total 161,400 claims filed statewide, 103,197 are Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims that cover self-employed and independent contract workers, often referred to as gig workers. There are additional requirements to verify self-employment for new PUA claims in an effort to curb fraudulent claims, which the state encountered in November when it saw an unexpected surge in claims.
Some residents are still waiting for benefits from that program from months ago.
Lakeisha Burkett, 38, filed for federal unemployment benefits in August and even obtained a court judgment after several appeals but has yet to receive any unemployment. Burkett estimates she is owed about $3,000 in back-pay.
She and her husband ran a small motor repair shop and lawn care business in West Monroe but closed down due to the coronavirus pandemic and also from significant damage after Hurricane Laura. The pair applied for the state's Main Street grant program for businesses but the fund had already run out of money. They are considering applying for the federal Paycheck Protection Program after the unemployment benefits situation is fixed.
"COVID closed us down, then Hurricane Laura finished it off," Burkett said. "I haven't even gotten one penny on my card."
Her husband has been getting unemployment checks and the pair receive some Social Security payments, which have been used to pay rent. They are now about a month behind on rent and their water and electric bills are already past-due.
"We paid (our landlord) half for this month, but he charges $25 a day (late fee). Two months ago we had to pay him $900 because I couldn't pay it because of unemployment," Burkett said. "It's just a snowball effect. It's making things worse."
There are few job openings in the region, and the couple has applied to mostly fast-food restaurants so far.
"It's super hard to find a job right now," she said.
The goal is to restart the lawn care business this year.