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Governor John Bel Edwards speaks during a press conference to discuss the current state of spread of Coronavirus in Louisiana, Thursday, August 13, 2020, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

Boosted unemployment checks of $300 could start flowing to Louisiana’s jobless workers sometime next week, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday, but up to 87,000 workers may not qualify after finalized federal guidance made for people currently receiving less than $100 in benefits ineligible. 

More than 400,000 Louisiana workers – an historic number – are currently unemployed after the pandemic and government restrictions led to mass layoffs. While jobless workers were receiving $600 a week on top of state benefits, those federal benefits expired this month, leaving thousands with a huge cut to their income. 

About 67,000 workers in Louisiana receive less than $100 in state unemployment benefits, Edwards said, and don’t meet the Trump administration’s requirements for the program. Another 20,000 workers didn’t say their unemployment was related to the virus at first, and will be given a chance to apply again, but it is not clear if they will qualify. 

“Next week is when we believe we will be issuing these checks. Again the benefits will be retroactive to those who qualify to August 1," Edwards said. “Unfortunately, not all people who are getting that unemployment in Louisiana will get this additional funding."

Edwards implored Congress to reach a deal on unemployment, saying that even for those who do receive the additional $300 a week, the money allocated for the program will only last for about six weeks. 

Louisiana officials have been trying to answer a host of questions about the unorthodox unemployment program since Trump announced the executive order more than a week ago. Among those questions were who qualifies, when will the money be available, and how the state will pay for it. 

Currently, jobless workers are only receiving the state unemployment benefits normally paid to those who are without work. Louisiana provides among the most meager benefits in the country, only awarding a maximum of $247 a week. 

About 417,000 people will qualify for the $300 weekly benefit, which is half the boosted pandemic benefit they were receiving until this month. Congress has been unable to reach a deal on a new round of payments.

Instead, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that sends enough money to states to pay for $300 a week per qualified worker in boosted unemployment. That money comes from a pot of disaster funding that requires states put up 25% in “match” funding.

The Trump administration said states could simply pay out $100 a week to those workers, boosting the amount to $400 a week, or use existing benefits to count toward the match. Edwards chose the second option, as the state’s unemployment trust fund is strapped for cash and the state doesn’t have any federal coronavirus aid left.

Edwards said he is not aware of any states that have chosen to pay out $100 a week to workers and bring the total benefit to $400.

Initially, the Trump administration told states those who made less than $100 would not qualify, but changed course and said they would qualify last week. Final guidance released this week makes clear they do not qualify, the governor said. 

After the initial guidance, Edwards said 200,000 people receive less than $100 and would not qualify, but on Tuesday said that number is currently at 67,000. 

"We do believe the guidance is final now," he said. 

Edwards will write a letter to the feds asking for a change in the policy to allow those workers to qualify, a spokesperson said. 

While the governor said the state will likely start paying out benefits next week, it's still not clear exactly when they will begin. He said the state hasn't received the money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency yet. 

Louisiana was among the first four states to be approved for the funding by FEMA last weekend. FEMA Region 6 spokesperson Earl Armstrong said typically the money becomes available to the state one day after the award is approved, which happened last weekend. Armstrong added the approval is contingent on the application being completed properly, but it was not clear when Louisiana would receive the money as of Tuesday. 

That initial round of funding is good for three weeks.  Armstrong said that's because the payments are retroactive to August 1, meaning workers will receive $300 checks for those weeks as well.

The state will then receive weekly allotments from the federal government until the money for the program runs out, Edwards' administration said. 

In the meantime, the Louisiana Workforce Commission, which administers benefits, is changing its computer system to accommodate the new payments. 

That has raised concerns from some that jobless workers will experience delays when applying for the money, as thousands did when the pandemic and government shutdowns caused the unemployment rolls to swell to historic levels this spring. 

Meanwhile, Louisiana's unemployment trust fund, which pays state benefits to workers, is running dangerously low. After sitting at more than $1 billion in March, the fund is now at just $210 million, Edwards said. If it runs out, which state officials say it will without an infusion of cash from the feds, the state would have to borrow from the feds and tack a surcharge onto businesses to pay for it, the governor said. 

Acadiana Business Today: Economist: Total jobs lost in Louisiana due to COVID-19 now nearly double total lost from Katrina


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com