A freshman legislator received a lesson Wednesday on what can happen if you don’t do your homework before presenting a bill.
With House Bill 620, state Rep. Beau Beaullieu IV, R-New Iberia, was seeking to cut unemployment benefits to an undetermined number of the more than 400,000 people in Louisiana who are jobless now. The House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee was hearing his bill.
After spending 20 minutes explaining HB620, Beaullieu shelved it when top officials at the state Louisiana Workforce Commission said it would cost the state hundreds of millions of supplemental dollars meant for unemployed workers under the federal relief measure approved in March.
Known as the CARES Act, the federal legislation provides two big batches of money – $600 weekly payments for laid-off workers through July 31 and an extra 13 weeks of benefits for workers who exhaust their benefits after the state limit of 26 weeks. But the federal government cuts off a state if it legislatively reduces unemployment benefits, as Beaullieu was trying to do.
Beaullieu had told committee members several times that he was presenting HB620 without discussing its ramifications beforehand with Workforce Commission officials.
He acknowledged his mistake in an interview afterward.
“Sometimes in defeat, something good comes out of it,” Beaullieu said.
He was trying to cut unemployment benefits to ensure that jobless workers don’t earn more now than they did when they had a job. In one example he gave, someone who was earning $700 per week while working might now be receiving $287 in state unemployment benefits plus an additional $600 from the federal government, for a total of $887 per week.
Under this example, Beaullieu said, his bill would have reduced benefits to the worker by $187 per week.
Beaullieu said he has been hearing complaints from small-business owners that some laid-off employees have declined to return to work because they are making more now. This is a common complaint of business-oriented conservatives.
State law requires laid-off employees to return to work if invited or become ineligible for continued unemployment benefits – unless they can show that the workplace is unsafe, that they are caring for someone infected by the COVID-19 disease or that they themselves are infected.
Beaullieu said he also was trying to prevent the state unemployment trust fund from dropping from its current level of $803 million to below a $750 million trigger point. At that point, to provide additional revenue for the fund, state law automatically requires employers to have a 10% increase in the taxable wage, and workers would see about a 10% drop in benefits.
If that happened, employers would go from paying unemployment taxes on the first $7,700 of a workers’ earnings to the initial $8,500, Margaret Mabile, a senior official with the Workforce Commission, told the committee.
Laid-off workers would go from receiving up to $247 per week to no more than $221, she said.
The trust fund has been dropping by about $45 million per week during the pandemic, Mabile said, meaning it will likely reach the trigger point soon.
Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Workforce Commission, told legislators that if Beaullieu’s bill passed the full Legislature, Louisiana would become the only state in the nation ineligible for the $600 weekly payments and the 13 weeks of extended benefits.
“I’ll make it easy,” Beaullieu said several minutes later. “I’ll voluntarily withdraw this bill.”
State Rep. Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria, left his seat on the dais to walk over to Beaullieu.
“That’s a good move,” Larvadain told him.