BR.endleg.061121 HS 107.JPG

Rep. Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine, speaks on HB 183 regarding unemployment compensation in the House Chambers on the last day of legislative session, Thursday, June 10, 2021, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

Sen. Jay Luneau calls them “the twins” because of how often they testify side-by-side before his Senate Labor & Industrial Relations Committee, arguing diametrically opposed views.

This legislative session, however, Louis Reine, head of the AFL-CIO in Louisiana, and Jim Patterson, vice president of government relations at Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, found common ground in shoring up the system that handles the unemployed.

“It doesn’t happen often,” Patterson said. “We’re comfortable talking with each other. We understand there are lines we can’t cross.”

They agreed on a package of bills that, for one thing, injected nearly a half-billion dollars into the almost empty Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The money will pay back federal loans and start replenishing the fund. When the fund gets too low, businesses have to pay higher taxes.

“Didn’t do either of us any good to see business hit with a payroll tax, particularly in a year with a pandemic, hurricanes, a deep freeze, a flood and now tropical storm on the way,” said Reine, who had been looking for a benefits bump since the last one in 2008.

But for Mississippi, Louisiana has the nation's lowest weekly stipend to help cover expenses while laid off workers try to find new jobs. Based on a calculation of salary and the trust fund balance, the top payment is $247. On average, workers receive $208 in weekly benefits.

Though labor and business agreed to increase the benefits by $28 per week, starting Jan. 1, getting others to go along proved something of an odyssey that ended last week when Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed that legislation into law.

As part of the deal, Edwards agreed to join at least 25 Republican-run states and prematurely cut off the extra $300 a week federal American Rescue Plan pandemic supplement, paid on top of regular state unemployment benefits. The federal add-on is set to expire Sept. 6.

A Republican Party line of attack on Democratic President Joe Biden has been that federal largesse is keeping people from returning to work. While many businessmen believe that is true, economists say worker shortages are due to longtime demographic trends, accelerated by the pandemic, that give employees more leverage than employers for the first time since the Kennedy administration.

But the anecdotal accounts were more persuasive in the Republican-majority Legislature and they killed House Bill 610’s $28 raise.

Luneau found House-passed Bill 183, which was a necessary one-word fix from “shall” to “may” in an unemployment law passed last year. He tried to amend the $28 onto it. But Luneau’s committee rejected the addition, then advanced the original HB183.

Luneau said he asked opponents why and talked with Edwards to work out acceptable wording. On the Senate floor, the leader of committee opposition returned the $28 benefits bump to HB183, which passed 36-0.

Dawn McVea, of the Louisiana chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, lobbyists for small businesses, rallied to press the House to refuse the Senate amendments, which they did on the night before adjournment. Under the rules, HB183 went into conference committee, where three representatives and three senators sought a deal.

As representatives collected their belongings that night, recalled Rep. Chad Brown, HB183's sponsor, “We were approached by members who asked, ‘Would you entertain ending the enhanced benefit?’”

“We had supported business,” said Reine, who felt business now needed to come through with the $28 as promised. “But it got to a point that ‘this is the deal and this will get you the votes you need.’”

It came down to the date Edwards would withdraw from the federal program. Republicans wanted July 15. But the governor, worried that the tourism industry was not rebounding, wanted Aug. 10, around the time schools would reopen, Brown said. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder suggested splitting the difference to July 31.

NFIB members wanted an end of the $300 federal payments and went along with the deal despite still being opposed to the permanent $28 bump, McVea said.

Patterson was texted a copy of the deal while sitting in the gallery alongside the Senate chamber and wondered if could happen in the 90 minutes remaining. It did and HB183 was sent to the governor.

“If you look at the other states that ended the unemployment stimulus, the workers got very little. At least we got something out of it,” Reine said.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.