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Q&A: City Councilwoman Gisleson Palmer On Aid For Hospitality Workers

Jason Paris
Magazine Street in New Orleans. February 20, 2011.

The coronavirus has hit New Orleans’ hospitality industry especially hard. Most workers don’t have paid sick leave or health insurance. Working remotely isn’t an option. And the city’s new social distancing measures will result in fewer shifts and job cuts.

The City Council recently sent a letter to New Orleans & Company, which represents the city’s tourism industry, asking it to encourage businesses to provide workers with testing, medical care and paid sick leave.

New Orleans Public Radio spoke with Councilwoman Kristin Palmer about the city’s efforts to address the hardships that hospitality workers now face.

Betsy Shepherd: In New Orleans, the hospitality industry makes up such a big part of our economy, and typically those jobs are lower-wage jobs that don’t have medical coverage or paid sick leave. Can you talk about what the city is doing to protect hospitality industry employees?

Kristin Palmer: This is a real big concern and we all know that situations like this are going to impact them at a far higher level than other people, especially hourly wage workers. So my office sent a letter out to Stephen Perry, head of New Orleans & Company, asking how we can partner and really start providing a safety net for hospitality workers.

Can you give a brief description of what New Orleans & Company is?

They basically do all the marketing for all of tourism. They receive a significant amount of funding to promote New Orleans, and so that’s why we reached out to them — because they have access to everyone.

We just really want to make sure that we can start trying to find some safety nets that we can put in pretty quickly here. A lot of these folks don’t have paid sick leave, so we’re really asking them to promote that among their members. We want workers to understand they don’t have to choose between saving their jobs and whether or not they can prevent the spread of the virus. A really big thing would be rehiring guarantees. If it’s a small business, and they can do nothing but rehiring guarantees for laid-off workers, that’s important. And then I really want to focus on facilitating food, formula, diaper and toiletry donations and trying to make sure we can have pantries accessible to the hospitality workers to make sure people have a decent quality of life.

Is there anything else happening at the city level to protect workers? A lot of the negotiations that are happening right now are suggestions. Is there any kind of safety net that workers can look to from the city?

Yes. The mayor sent a letter to the governor and to the congressional delegation. They’re requesting additional funds, especially Louisiana Economic Development grants and low-interest loans and technical assistance to help these small businesses that are going to be affected. They’ve requested disaster recovery CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] money. They are also asking for technical assistance for worker training to reduce exposure.

They’re also looking at how we can get emergency employment assistance for workers that are going to be facing job loss or job slowdown. There’s also disaster unemployment assistance for employees that are not eligible for unemployment assistance such as people who are self-employed. They’ve also asked for funding for emergency housing assistance who are unable to meet rental or mortgage payments. And also increased SNAP assistance for food stamps, which is very similar to what happened right after Katrina.

When you declare a state of emergency, there are certain things that can kick in at the federal level. I’m hoping that disaster money will come down to the people that actually need it — the cities that have a very high hospitality industry. It’s the majority of folks’ jobs down here. I don’t think everybody understands how people are really going to be impacted by this.

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Betsy Shepherd covers environmental news and is producing a podcast on the Civil Rights Movement in small-town Louisiana. She won a regional Edward R. Murrow award for a feature she reported on Louisiana’s 2016 floods.

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