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'These Things Hit Us Harder': Mass Unemployment Puts New Orleans' People, Safety Nets Under Strain

Patrick Madden
Ms. Mae's in New Orleans is boarded up during its coronavirus closure. March 30, 2020.

Record numbers of laid-off workers across Louisiana are waiting for badly needed assistance, while the state struggles to process hundreds of thousands of new unemployment claims. Their lives have been doubly upended by quarantine and financial hardship.

Overnight, the coronavirus put Jaimée Greenleaf out of work and shut down her two-year-old son’s daycare center. Now Jaimée and Jake are hunkered down following the statewide stay-at-home mandate. But snacks and cartoons aren’t enough to keep Jake from getting restless.

“Having my son, I probably quarantine myself more than most people because I’m his sole provider. If something happens to me, it’s done. That’s terrifying to me,” Greenleaf said.

Greenleaf is one of tens of thousands of recently unemployed workers in New Orleans who are dealing with the pandemic and joblessness. Before the coronavirus closed New Orleans businesses, Greenleaf made money shucking oysters, waitressing, bar-tending, doing whatever service industry gigs she could get to support her family of two. Now, she doesn’t know how she’s going to make ends meet.

“I’m just trying to take it one day at a time. I only check the news once a day, so that I don’t panic. Because we’re only at the beginning,” she said.

Greenleaf tried to apply for unemployment benefits but the state’s website kept crashing, and the phone system was jammed. The Louisiana Workforce Commission, which processes unemployment claims, says it’s been deluged by tens of thousands of applications, which have crippled its automated system. 

Eva Dejoie, who heads the commission, is encouraging people to apply in the middle of the night.

“Because of the sheer volume of individuals filing, it is slowing the system down. The staff has been working tirelessly on Saturdays and Sundays, and around the clock. We realize this is the only assistance that anyone can tap into at this point,” Dejoie said.

Unemployment benefits can take weeks to process, and the maximum amount anyone can get from the state is $988 a month. That’s less than the average monthly cost for housing and utilities in New Orleans. 

The math just doesn’t add up, said Schilacy Hall, a homeowner who recently lost her job as a waitress at Antoine’s restaurant. She applied for unemployment but said the check won’t cover basic necessities.

“This is nerve-wracking. And I just don’t know what to do right now. I’m looking at my unemployment benefits and I’m looking at my overhead. And I really want to cry about it because it’s either I’m going to take care of the utilities and food or I take care of my mortgage. It’s not both,” Schilacy said.

Unemployment payouts in Louisiana are some of the lowest in the country. That’s because the rates haven’t changed much over the last 35 years.

“The unemployment trust fund goes back to the 1980s. Due to the oil crisis at that time, it essentially ran out of money,” said James Richardson, an economics professor at Louisiana State University.

As the economy recovered, only marginal increases in unemployment benefits were made while the majority of surpluses in the state’s unemployment trust were used to lower taxes on businesses. James Richardson said that as low as those benefits are now, they’re likely to be cut even more.

“Given the fact that we expect to have a lot of people unemployed, that fund is going to go down. Because you’re going to have a lot of benefits paid out and not as much money paid in.”

Luckily, the stimulus package the federal government recently passed includes unemployment benefits that will add $600 a week to workers’ state unemployment checks. That will help many bridge the financial gap until things go back to normal.

But in New Orleans, a city so dependent on tourist dollars, many workers wonder if things will ever go back to normal. Graham Cooper, a local tour guide that recently got furloughed, worries about the pandemic’s long-term economic impacts.  

“The ripple effect does concern me. We’re a city in many ways hanging on a thread. A lot of people will be hurt by this. A lot of good businesses that really define the city will relocate," Cooper said. "We are going to be impacted in a much more exacerbated way. These things hit us harder.”

While Cooper, Greenleaf, Hall and tens of thousands of New Orleans residents recalibrate their lives to survive off unemployment, they face an uncertain future. They don’t know whether it’ll be weeks, months, or half a year before they can go back to work. Or whether they’ll have jobs to return to.

This is a lot to keep up with.

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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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