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As The Clock Runs Out On $300 Unemployment Benefits, A New Orleans Waitress Is Left In Limbo

Leslie Gamboni for the Gulf States Newsroom
Dora Whitfield poses for a portrait outside of her home in New Orleans, Friday, July 2, 2021. After about a year of living on unemployment and other assistance, Whitfield faces the difficult decision of either waiting to return to her job at Harrah’s Casino with the possible removal of tipped pay or seeking new employment.

When Dora Whitfield bought her house in 2014, she and her husband were so giddy they invited a caravan of family members over to see the place.

“It was so lovely. I didn’t have no food for them. And we didn’t have no chairs in here,” Whitfield recalled, her voice pitched high with joy. “I just wanted to show them around because it was like, ‘This is your Christmas present?’ I say ‘Yes it is.’”

It was a hard-earned present she was able to afford because of her job as a buffet waitress at Harrah’s Casino. The job also gave her a steady income with enough money left over to play the penny slots. When Whitfield purchased the three-bedroom home in the Dillard neighborhood, she broke free from 30 years of living in public housing.

As she leans against her marble-topped island in her open-concept kitchen, she wears a smile that would fit perfectly on a brochure for homeownership. In one of her three bedrooms, she keeps two Bibles open to specific Psalms to bless her home. These days, she is praying she does not lose it altogether.

Leslie Gamboni for the Gulf States Newsroom
Dora Whitfield’s bedroom altar features a lit candle, two Bibles, and images of saints in New Orleans, Friday, July 2, 2021. Whitfield’s Bibles are opened to two specific Psalms — 23 and 91 — to serve as a blessing over her home.

When the pandemic struck, she was laid off and has been getting by on unemployment benefits ever since. Now, the additional federal unemployment benefits that helped her will soon disappear. Louisiana is ending the $300 weekly payments on July 31, following the lead of states like Alabama and Mississippi who cut off the checks in June in hopes of driving up job applications for businesses desperate for workers.

But for Whitfield and the roughly 200,000 others in Louisiana waiting on the unemployment sidelines, returning to a job and their pre-pandemic life is not always as simple as waiting for businesses to reopen or following the help wanted signs.

Paying Bills Was A Matching Game

For nearly two decades, Whitfield’s job at Harrah’s allowed her to travel great lengths without ever leaving the building. She worked as a waitress at the buffet, carrying in and taking away drinks from customers' tables. Her bad knees and bone spur slowed her down, but Harrah’s recognized her as a hard worker.

She became close with her out-of-town guests and regulars. There was the state representative from Michigan. The New Yorkers who promised to take her to the Statue of Liberty. She also charmed the local slots fans, including a hatmaker who gave her a “Who Dat” Saints cap.

“I want to know what their culture is and how their city is and what their food is,” Whitfield said.

Leslie Gamboni
Gulf States Newsroom
Patrons walk towards the entrance of Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans, Monday, July 12, 2021.

Whitfield’s friendly questions and big smile earned her even bigger tips on top of her $6.79 per hour. About $100 per day. $200 on weekends, thanks to the bottomless mimosas.

The tips were enough to make paying bills like a matching game. If a $100 light bill arrived on Tuesday, she could cover it with Wednesday’s tips. Her Mortgage? Combine a couple of mimosa weekends and it was paid in full. She took pride in never being behind on a bill.

The game changed when she went on unemployment. Whitfield was surprised that Louisiana offered $240 a week — a little more than a third of what she earned in tips.

“Now I’m like panicking,” Whitfield said. “It’s like, what bill you pay this week and what bill you just have to call and get an extension on,” Whitfield said.

Relief came before the end of March when Congress passed the CARES Act, which added an additional $600 a week on top of the state's unemployment benefits. The extra payments expired in July 2020 before getting restored at $300 a week in December.

That — along with a mortgage forbearance and help from a charity paying her power bill — helped keep Whitfield above water.

But much of that assistance has either come to an end or will be ending soon. Along with Louisiana’s extra unemployment benefits stopping, Whitfield’s mortgage forbearance finished last month. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction and foreclosure moratoriums are also set to expire on July 31st, according to the Biden Administration.

Barriers To Finding Work Again

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was the first Democratic governor to announce he would end the extra federal unemployment aid. It has been a popular move among Republican state leaders who argued Americans were not taking low-wage jobs at places needing workers because unemployment paid the potential hires more to stay home.

Leslie Gamboni for the Gulf States Newsroom
Dora Whitfield smiles as she speaks to her neighbor while standing on her porch in New Orleans, Friday, July 2, 2021. After about a year of living on unemployment and other assistance, Whitfield was able to buy her home in the Dillard neighborhood with some assistance from her employer, Harrah’s Casino, who helped pay closing costs for her.

Unemployment has dropped faster in states that cut off those benefits, according to the Wall Street Journal. But Reuters reports that while labor supplies in those states rose sharply, there was not much change in hiring.

Economists say it is too early to determine the effect of smaller unemployment checks. Some researchers have criticized ending the benefits for cutting off states from an infusion of federal cash that could boost local economies.

“It’s been an unforced error to end it,” said Pete Jones, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration. “This is new dollars being injected into the state economy. I think it’s really prevented a longer-term economic recession than we might have seen.”

Economists say one of the biggest challenges to our current economy is that the jobs available do not match neatly with the people looking for jobs.

“We now have a mismatch of labor,” said Jeremy Thornton, the Dwight Moody Beeson chair of business at Samford University. “Very rarely do we see these sharp demarcations where we just dramatically need a different economy than we had a year ago.”
Other hardships include child care being hard to find, and some potential hires fear returning with COVID-19 cases back on the rise.

A wave of restaurant workers, tired of the low pay and tough hours, have also been quitting and driving up the need for replacement hires.

But with unemployment ending, not all workers have the financial option to turn down low-wage jobs and might sign up for shifts despite health risks.

“For the people that aren’t working because they fear infection, this is going to push them towards working despite their vulnerabilities,” said Erica Groshen, senior economics advisor at Cornell University. “I do think it’s quite a risk for those states.”

Leslie Gamboni for the Gulf States Newsroom
Dora Whitfield addresses a crowd at a block party hosted by Step Up Louisiana in New Orleans, Saturday, July 10, 2021. Step Up Louisiana is a community-based organization that supports workers that have lost their jobs and advocates for economic justice. Whitfield works as a volunteer for the group, educating workers on the benefits of unions and advocating for unemployment reform.

‘I Don’t Want To Crawl’

Whitfield spent much of the last year volunteering with Step Up Louisiana, a charity organization advocating for racial justice and raising the minimum wage. She first became connected with the group through her role as a shop steward with the casino’s union.

Whitfield helped people over the phone connect with unemployment benefits. Last year she joined Step Up Louisiana rallies across New Orleans where other attendees sat in the street — “I couldn’t get on that street, I couldn’t get up” — and pushed for a higher minimum wage and for employers to raise pay.

“They don’t pay enough,” she said. “Give me some kind of encouragement and make me come back or some kind of incentive to bring people back to work safely.”

She laughs when she admits unemployment has spoiled her and others. Whitfield believes anyone who is receiving unemployment should be looking for a job.

Of course, she argues her situation is different — she has a job. She is just waiting for the casino to bring her back.

The help wanted signs and the rising wages at places like Walmart this year have tempted Whitfield to find employment elsewhere. But most places are not offering enough to replace what she made at Harrah’s. Whitfield estimates a new job would have to come with $25 an hour to do that.

She would also prefer to stay at Harrah’s out of loyalty. Whitfield said the casino earned hers by paying the closing costs on her house — about $2,000 — and providing a good workplace and insurance for 19 years.

“It’s like you’re starting over, like you’re crawling,” Whitfield said. “I’m walking now with this company. I don’t want to crawl.”

Leslie Gamboni for the Gulf States Newsroom
Temporary walls inside Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans block off an area that formerly featured a buffet, Monday, July 12, 2021. Under new ownership, rumors have swirled that the buffet could be renovated into a food court. The change would leave former buffet employees, like Dora Whitfield, with the possibility that they would lose out on tips.

And even if she could wait for Harrah’s to bring her job back, Whitfield has heard rumors that the buffet will be replaced with a more COVID-friendly food court. That would mean less mingling with the tourists and her regulars, along with losing their tips. A Harrah’s phone operator told the Gulf States Newsroom that the buffet will return, but the casino did not respond to follow-up requests about the buffet’s status.
The dilemma has left Whitfield’s head swimming.

“Oh Lord, what should I do?” Whitfield said. “Should I get on these bad knees and walk around Walmart? Or should I wait on the casino to call?”

As she weighs these decisions, she cannot help but think about the risk of losing the house she loves so much. It is a fear that keeps her up at night.

It is even more likely she will lose her car. She is willing to accept the loss of her Buick if it means holding onto her home.

“I’m not giving this house up,” Whitfield said. “I will take that 2017 Buick Verano and take it away from here. We had it for three years. Time for it to go if it had to go.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, WWNO in New Orleans and NPR.

Stephan Bisaha is the wealth and poverty reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a regional collaboration between NPR and member stations in Alabama (WBHM), Mississippi (MPB) and Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF). He reports on the systemic drivers of poverty in the region and economic development.

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