BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he hasn't determined how Louisiana will be able to tap into President Donald Trump's partial extension of federal unemployment aid, and the governor called on Congress to enact a longer-term fix for those forced out of jobs by the coronavirus pandemic.
Congress approved $600 weekly federal unemployment payments, on top of what states pay in unemployment assistance, but that enhanced benefit expired at the end of July. Trump's executive order takes $44 billion from a federal disaster relief fund and offers states additional unemployment payments using that money.
Critics question the validity of the order, and Edwards said he's not sure if Louisiana could come up with a way to pay its 25% cost share of providing the $400 weekly unemployment benefit envisioned by Trump or if the state would accept a $300 payment from the federal government instead.
“We're trying to figure out how we can participate because we know we have a lot of workers who are unemployed, continue to be unemployed, through no fault of their own, and we want to make available to them all of the assistance that we can,” Edwards said.
While the Trump administration suggested states could use federal coronavirus aid already allocated by Congress, Louisiana has earmarked all $1.8 billion of its money. Edwards and lawmakers allocated the dollars to close gaps in the state budget, give small business grants, reimburse local governments for virus-related spending and give one-time payments to front-line workers.
Louisiana's unemployment trust fund, meanwhile, is being rapidly drained to pay the state's existing benefits that max out at $247 per week — making it an unlikely source to provide the cost share of an extra payment.
More than 450,000 people in Louisiana have been receiving unemployment aid as the virus outbreak shuttered businesses and as Edwards has enacted restrictions in response to the public health risk.
Edwards said it's not clear when the federal money might be available for the additional unemployment payments, and he suggested the disaster aid being tapped to cover the federal cost will run out quickly, making it a short-term patch at best. The Democratic governor also said it appears that as many as 200,000 people on Louisiana's unemployment rolls might not be eligible for the benefit.
He said Congress needs to reach a compromise on additional coronavirus relief.
“Nobody believes that the executive actions taken by the president on Saturday are a realistic and complete substitute for the legislation that Congress needs to pass,” Edwards said.
Louisiana’s health department says 4,195 state residents have died from COVID-19, a death toll that grew by 26 on Tuesday. The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases has been falling, but the state continues to have one of the nation’s highest per capita infection rates in recent weeks.
As schools are reopening amid the pandemic, Louisiana's education department has set up an email for parents, teachers and others to report violations of the state's coronavirus safety standards for campuses.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in mid-July adopted statewide rules for schools holding in-person instruction amid the virus outbreak, such as a mask mandate for school staff and students in grades 3 through 12; distancing standards; temperature checks to enter school premises; and school bus capacity limits.
Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told the education board Tuesday that anyone worried a school isn't following the rules can email firstname.lastname@example.org to register those concerns. Complaints reported to the education department are posted online. Complaints registered since July 29 involve mask-wearing, group sizes and cleaning plans, according to the education department's list.
Brumley said the education department has little ability to force compliance with the guidelines.
But he cautioned that schools that don't follow the regulations risk losing legal protections recently enacted by lawmakers to shield schools from most civil lawsuits if a student or teacher contacts the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus. The protections only are extended if schools are following the state's regulations.
Louisiana schools have taken varied approaches as they reopen schools in the pandemic. Brumley said a recent survey of school systems found that 86% of the public school districts intend to use a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction while the state remains in Phase 2 of its reopening plans.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.