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Katrina unemployment checks end
Businesses hope for more workers
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
By Bruce Hamilton

Disaster unemployment assistance has ended for those who lost their jobs as a result of Hurricane Katrina, prompting back into the work force many of the 64,000 who were receiving the federal benefit when it officially ended.

The cutoff was another blow to storm victims in financially dire straits, but it's good news for the area's labor-strapped economy, especially in sectors such as the service industry that have endured continual hiring struggles since the storm.

"I would expect that we would see some of these jobs being filled by people who are forced to go back to work," said Philip Jeffress, a consulting economist in Slidell. He said the aid may have caused many jobs throughout the region to remain unfilled.

Louisiana Department of Labor data show the number of continuing Katrina unemployment claims declined gradually since its May peak. The number dropped drastically in the two weeks following June 3, the last day claims were accepted, from 64,318 to 1,584.

Those figures are total claims, and 40,457 outside Louisiana were receiving the benefit. Within Louisiana, the number of storm victims who were on the rolls went from 23,861 to 673. Most of them likely are residents of the New Orleans area, Jeffress said.

A small number of claims continued after the cutoff date, but a Labor Department spokeswoman said they are for back pay, or retroactive payments. As of the week that ended July 8, the total number of claims was 151, including 81 outside Louisiana.

Disaster unemployment assistance for victims of Hurricane Rita expired June 24. Congress originally granted 26 weeks of unemployment aid for victims of both storms, then approved a 13-week extension in March.

Although it considered another extension, Congress recessed for the Memorial Day holiday weekend May 26 without acting on legislation to do so. Proponents suggested the extension represented compassion toward storm victims; others said it would be counterproductive to discourage them from finding work.

Some public officials openly criticized "deadbeats" for abusing various forms of federal aid. U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, recently blasted evacuees for remaining idle so long after the disaster struck.

"Time has long since passed for the able-bodied people from Louisiana to either find a job, return to somewhere in Louisiana or become Houstonians," he said in an Associated Press story.

Checks for the disaster aid averaged about $104 per week, but the overall program has spent more than $314 million on Katrina victims alone, according to Labor Department data. In the week ended May 6, disaster unemployment aid for Katrina topped out at $12,118,411.

Labor Department officials said they repeatedly notified the disaster-aid recipients that the cutoff was coming. "We encouraged them to go into training programs; a lot of people took advantage of that," said spokesman Edward Pratt.

Greg Declouet, the department's director of field operations, said his office invited aid recipients to job fairs. Officials invited them to centers to check their skills, scan job databases and enter resumes into the department's system. "We also set up interviews and set up interviews for employers," he said.

Assistant Secretary Marianne Sullivan said storm victims could receive either regular unemployment aid or disaster assistance. Once disaster aid is exhausted, a recipient cannot then get a regular jobless benefit until after he or she has worked again.

In many areas such as St. Tammany Parish, employers are offering hiring bonuses and other incentives for widespread openings.

"Everywhere you look, you see 'now hiring' signs," said Jeffress, the economist. "The question was, why aren't those jobs being filled? One of the answers is, people were still drawing unemployment."

Jim Heap, business service representative at the West St. Tammany Job Center, said very few parish residents have been receiving disaster unemployment assistance. St. Tammany had as few as 520 overall jobless claims at the end of June. The parish's problem, he said, is it has more work than workers.

"With the surplus of jobs that we have in St. Tammany Parish, if somebody needs to work, they aren't going to have any problem finding work," he said.

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Bruce Hamilton can be reached at or (985) 898-4827.