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At least 17 states, all of them led by Republican governors, are now opting out of the federal government’s supplemental unemployment program which adds an additional $300 a week to state benefits for unemployed workers as a part of continued efforts to help mitigate the economic hurt caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We are glad that Louisiana isn’t one of them.

We cannot help but find the irony in this situation, however. While president, Republican Donald Trump absolutely bungles the country’s response to the pandemic, which only worsens its deleterious impact on American lives and livelihoods. And now Republican governors, pushing a false narrative about the federal UI boosts keeping workers out of the job market, are ending the additional payments in their respective states, including Missouri, Iowa, Mississippi, Alabama, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, Ohio, Georgia, Utah, Arkansas, South Dakota, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Arizona. 

So yes, here at The  New Orleans Tribune, we thank Gov. Edwards for standing his ground on this issue. The governor’s press secretary recently said that he hasn’t heard any talk or plans to end the benefit in Louisiana any sooner than the Sept. 4 end outlined by the American Rescue Act. Of course, the big business lobby wants him to do just that. And, we know how much big business cares for the people of Louisiana, considering how much time and effort they have put into successfully lobbying the state legislature to not only keep the state minimum wage at a paltry $7.25 an hour, but to also keep municipalities across Louisiana from setting their own minimum wages so that people who work for living can actually earn enough money to live.

Now what’s really funny is that some of these states that will ditch the enhanced benefits in June are planning to offer one-time bonuses for people who return to work. How about not cutting people off of benefits prematurely? How about raising minimum wages so no one has to wonder if an extra $300 a week is keeping people out of the job market?

Of the 17 states that will end the benefits next month, 10 have a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Hold on to your hats—two of these states, Georgia and Wyoming, actually have lower state minimum wages of $5.15 an hour, with the federally-mandated $7.25 only applying to businesses that are subject to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The other five have minimum wages at $8.75 or higher, with Montana coming in at $8.75 an hour and Arizona setting the highest of the lot at $12.15. Whatever the case, these governors should be ashamed of themselves for turning what should be a transformative discussion surrounding living wages and valuing workers into some imagined narrative about the American people choosing to stay home instead of working for poverty wages.

Signs of the Times

We have read with great interest the signs on local fast food restaurant billboards and in other job postings. They are desperately seeking employees. To be sure, their need is urgent. In fact, they are so eager to get workers that they are offering as much as  $13, $14, and $15 an hour to lure applicants. 

If you are wondering why many of these businesses that typically have paid their employees minimum wage or just a bit more are now willing to pay as much as $15 an hour to fill their ranks, it is simple. They are having an awfully difficult time attracting applicants right now. For its part, fast food giant McDonald’s recently announced that it was raising wages at its 660 corporate-owned stores, paying entry-level workers $11 to $17 an hour after the increases, and an hourly minimum of $15 to $20 for supervisors and shift managers. We’re glad they are doing this. Of course, 660 is only a fraction of the nearly 14,000 McDonald’s franchises across America. And while the move does not go unnoticed, the reality is they did it because they had to, not so much because it was just the right thing to do. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter if outside pressure  or altruism that drives the change. It is time for every corporation and business in the nation to step up.

Here’s why. It is true that some unemployed Louisianans and other Americans receive more in unemployment than they earned pre-pandemic on low-wage paying jobs. Because of the $300 federal boost to benefits that will last through Sept. 6, weekly benefits range anywhere from $407 to $547. In 2020, under the CARES Act, an additional $600 boost made weekly unemployment payouts as much as $847 in Louisiana for about 16 weeks between April and July of last year. As such, we have no doubt that many unemployed workers across this city have seen a boost to their income—the kind of boost that might make it less likely for them to run out and get a job cleaning hotel rooms or taking food orders without something like, oh, let’s say a living wage to entice them back to the workforce sooner rather than later.

The Federal Boost was Sorely Needed – And that’s the Problem!

These federal boosts were added to state unemployment payments because congressional lawmakers understood that workers impacted by the pandemic would need real money to pay rent, mortgages, buy groceries, pay utilities, and otherwise take care of their families—especially in places like Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and a few other states where weekly UI benefits are shamefully low.

Let’s be clear about this: most of those congressional lawmakers were not thinking about the very poor—people struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage—when they added the boost. They understood, however, that they were not going to get middle America to shelter in place for the equivalent of  $12,844 a year (what Louisiana’s highest UI payout of $247 a week comes to annually and that’s before taxes). So for those earning what is typically considered middle income wages and salaries (some where between maybe $40,000 and $100,000 a year depending on your location in this great nation) the federal boosts to UI benefits were no boon. It just meant that folk probably wouldn’t starve or that they might be able to pay all of the utility bills. But with those weekly boosts—first $600, then $400 and now $300—low-wage earning unemployment recipients were actually collecting more in UI than they earned pre-pandemic.  And that is the problem—wages, not workers. At this point, we bet that if Republican lawmakers could have figured out a way to exclude low-wage earners from the federal boosts to begin with, they would have.

Consider that the average fast food or hospitality industry job pays about $9 an hour (our estimate is generous) for 30 hours a week (many of these jobs rarely employ individuals at a full-time status as to avoid paying overtime or providing those pesky perks like health insurance, paid time off and so on that a regular, full-time employee would receive). That comes to a meager $270 a week—roughly $1080 a month and not much more than an unemployed worker would get in UI benefits in this state without additional federal stimulus amounts. But with the federal stimulus, some unemployed people are getting nearly 43 percent more in UI benefits than they earned as workers. 

And there are some folks that don’t like that at all—those 17 Republican governors, for sure. And they are showing their contempt for the poor by treating them badly instead of calling on big business to up wages. They are thumbing their noses in anger and disgust at poor people unwilling to settle for low-paying jobs right now. They even suggest that some current UI recipients are abusing the system.

They are wrong. First of all, let’s stop the ridiculous narrative that folks are out here “getting rich” off unemployment. Right now, with the federal boost, a UI recipient in Louisiana receiving the state’s maximum payout of $247 a week, plus the $300 weekly stimulus, is receiving the equivalent of $28,444 a year—BEFORE TAXES. Knock off 10 percent for taxes, and it is less than $26,000 annually–which would be below the poverty line for a family of four (consider a single parent supporting three children or a married couple with two children with only one spouse working out of the home) based on the 2021 federal poverty line standards. Oh, that alone begs this question: WHO IN THE HELL CAME UP WITH THESE RIDICULOUSLY LOW POVERTY LINE STANDARDS? Seriously, if we got way more realistic about what poverty actually looks like and how much money it actually takes to live and thrive in America, we would realize that way more of us are impacted by poverty than we would like to believe. Maybe then we’d fix it. But, we digress. That’s another column for another day.

While the working poor are targeted and used as scapegoats for a so-called labor shortage,  corporations sit back and make billions in profit. CEOs and other executives rake in six-figure and seven-figure salaries and big bonuses—all while low-wage earners, who are the backbone of these operations, scratch and survive. To add more insult to this effort to malign the working poor, these are the same corporations that raked in way more than their share of forgivable PPP loans made available in response to COVID-19 while small businesses and 1099 workers were practically shut out of the program in the first round. And they are the same big businesses that line up to get the tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare available to them even when our nation is not responding to a global health crisis. So whenever America is ready to have a real conversation about freeloaders, we’ll be here for it.

What Would You Do? .  .  .  And Don’t Lie 

Despite what big business interests and conservative voices would have us believe, there is actually NO evidence that workers are staying out of the job market just to collect unemployment. But let’s say that was true. Let’s just say, for the sake of this argument, that poor workers currently collecting boosted unemployment benefits were actively deciding not to go back and earn $7.25 or even $8, $9, or $10 an hour on jobs that put them face-to-face with the American public, 50 percent of which is still NOT vaccinated. Let’s say they don’t want to bag your groceries, flip burgers, fry chicken, clean hotel rooms, bus tables, clean bathrooms and the like—at least not any time soon and definitely not for poverty wages. If that were the case, we, at The New Orleans Tribune, would have no problem responding with a resounding, “We ain’t madatcha!”

The dilemma now, of course, is that big business is ready to jump-start the economy. Hell, they have been ready. They were ready when thousands of Louisianans were still getting diagnosed with and hundreds were dying from COVID-19 daily. But how do they lure unemployed workers back into the workforce? So far, two approaches are taking center stage in this operation. Behind curtain #1, we have the report-and-end approach, with businesses reporting those who refuse to return to jobs that don’t pay them enough to pay their utility bills, buy food or pay rent without relying on some type of social service or government assistance program, a move that will result in the end UI benefits for those unemployed workers. And behind curtain #2, there is the old bait-and-switch game of temporarily offering $15 an hour just long enough to get your operation back into full swing then cutting  hours and dropping earnings back to minimum wage or just above it for anyone else who is hired later. After all of the stimulus programs have ended, poor folk will be resigned to returning to these jobs for pennies, they figure. By the way, this is exactly what was done as businesses lured workers back to jobs in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—the last time a major crisis unmasked the city’s poverty problem. Don’t you remember the fast-food joints offering $13 an hour? And that was back in 2005 and 2006. Well, we see how that worked out and how long it lasted. Sixteen years later, New Orleans continues to lead the nation in poverty with nearly 24 percent of its residents living at or below the line. And for Black New Orleanians, who disproportionately comprise the city’s low-wage earning population, that rate is even higher at 32 percent.

So let’s get real for a second. If the choice is staying on unemployment until the wheels fall off and receiving benefits that range anywhere between just above $1600 to nearly $2200 a month or going back to work for less than $1100 a month at the risk of having to serve some right-winged Trump supporter who has politicized vaccinations and refuses to wear a mask, what would you choose? Don’t lie.

While either of the current quick fixes to getting people back to work—forcing them off unemployment or temporarily offering higher wages—might seem effective; they are shortsighted. In fact, if the COVID-19 related turn of events should force anything, it should force everyone to take a good, hard look at big businesses and the way they treat and pay their workers instead of criticizing the working poor. It should have members of the Louisiana legislature knocking each other down to pass a bill that significantly increases the state’s minimum wage well beyond the federal $7.25 an hour. It should have members of Congress, the very body that saw the need for and approved the federal boost to state UI benefits, falling over themselves to increase the federal minimum wage for all workers IMMEDIATELY—like today.

Another Dragon to Slay

To be sure, COVID-19 is a fire-breathing dragon. It hit hard and fast. But, when COVID-19 threatened lives and livelihoods, we got serious. We fought back. We shut down; we masked up; we stayed home; we learned and worked remotely; we fast-tracked vaccine approvals. And we put in place stimulus packages and programs that provided some safeguards so that average Americans could stave off financial disaster while we hunkered down to slow the spread of the disease.

It is time for us to get just as serious about battling the other pandemic that is killing us — POVERTY. And if you don’t think poverty is a killer, think again. More than 45,000 people die in the U.S. every year because they have no access to healthcare, or because the healthcare they receive is substandard due to an inability to pay. 

Here are some of the protocols and the guidelines for that fight: 

Communities and the systems they support must provide quality education and opportunities that prepare the workforce for jobs in current and emergent career paths. One of the issues with New Orleans’ economy is that far too many of its residents are dependent upon jobs in low-waging earning industries because of disparities, inequity, and the lack of opportunity.

Businesses and corporations must pay people what they are worth based on the value they bring to their operation. If McDonald’s, Burger King, and temporary agencies that provide workers for the hospitality industry need employees so badly that they are now willing to pay $15 an hour, then these workers have always been worth $15 an hour. And if it is economically feasible for them to pay $15 an hour today, then it was feasible for them to do so more than a year ago before the pandemic began. Hell, it was feasible five years ago.

Employers must offer employees benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, sick leave, and guarantee a 40-hour work week for hourly employees so that they can support their families.

If businesses and industries want to truly contribute to a healthy economy and thriving communities, they will value the people they call employees by paying them a wage that not only allows them to survive but enables them to thrive.