Unemployment benefits are being sped up in Louisiana to the thousands of workers who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, and job search requirements are being waived temporarily.
“This is uncharted territory for all of us,” Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said Tuesday during a news conference. “There are so many variables and these are new, scary times. But together, we will get through it.”
The workforce commission has seen the number of people calling to file unemployment claims triple over its regular volume Monday and Tuesday. The sheer number of first-time filers has caused the website to crash a few times.
The state has closed casinos, bars, gyms and movie theaters to help contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Louisiana. Restaurants have been stripped of dine-in services and limited to take-out, delivery or drive-through service.
Separately, the state's tourism industry is being hit hard by temporary airline, cruise and other travel shutdowns or restrictions. National retailers have started announcing temporary store closures.
The first patient in Baton Rouge to test positive for the novel coronavirus is receiving treatment at Baton Rouge General, the hospital said Tuesday.
Between Monday and noon Tuesday, Dejoie said 3,600 people had called about first-time or continuing unemployment claims. In contrast, there were 1,698 initial unemployment claims for the week ending March 7, and 1,584 first-time claims for the similar week in 2019.
Workers who are experiencing a temporary layoff or a reduction in hours are encouraged to apply for benefits because they may be eligible for unemployment, Dejoie said.
"If you have a reduction in hours, you're likely not eligible to get benefits," she said. "It depends on the amount of hours you were getting in a week."
Anyone who files an initial claim by Saturday and says they lost work because of the coronavirus will receive their first unemployment check in three to five days, Dejoie said. Normally, there is a one-week waiting period, but claims are being reviewed immediately. The maximum weekly benefit is $247.
The workforce commission trust fund is one of the strongest in the nation, with more than $1 billion in assets. Dejoie said that even if no money was paid into the fund, the state could make unemployment payments to every displaced Louisiana worker for 17 months.
“We don’t know how long this will last, but we are very proud that our fund has remained strong,” she said.
If a person lost their job because of the coronavirus this week, they have until 5 p.m. Saturday to file a claim. So people who are having difficulty with the website or placing calls have a few days.
Twenty-five new staff members have been placed to help handle the volume of phone calls and hours have been extended from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The claim center's phone number is (866) 783-5567. A button has been placed on the workforce commission website so people can leave their information. To file an initial claim, go to louisianaworks.net/hire.
"We're working with the Office of Technology Services to increase our capacity," Dejoie said.
A businesses’ experience rating, which uses the number of claims to determines how much a company pays in unemployment insurance, will not be affected by the coronavirus claims, Dejoie said.
This story has been changed since it was first published to fix an incorrect phone number for the Louisiana Workforce Commission's claim center.