By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Grocery store employees, nurses, bus drivers and other front-line workers who stayed on their jobs in the early days of Louisiana’s coronavirus outbreak could receive a one-time $250 state payment, under a bill that started advancing Wednesday in the state House.
Democratic lawmakers are pushing the hazard pay proposal — paid out of $50 million in federal virus aid from Congress — in an ongoing special session focused largely on business recovery from the pandemic. They’re trying to broker a deal with Republicans who need some Democratic support to pass certain business tax breaks and other pro-business measures.
The Ways and Means Committee sent the $250 hazard pay bill by House Democratic leader Sam Jenkins of Shreveport to the full House for debate without objection Wednesday, in a bipartisan show of support.
“This committee has gone above and beyond to support our big business and our small businesses,” said Rep. Matthew Willard, a New Orleans Democrat. “We have yet to do anything for the working people of Louisiana. While some had the luxury of staying home and protecting their health and safety, others … did not have that choice.”
Jenkins said the state should offer aid to grocery store workers, nurses, janitors, nursing home employees, bus drivers, EMS workers, fire and rescue employees, sanitation workers and others who risked their health to keep businesses operating during Louisiana’s stay-at-home order.
“We do believe that these funds will immediately go back into our local economies. We think it will be a stimulus,” Jenkins said. “We feel like this is an immediate investment into our economy.”
The $250 payments would be available to workers with an adjusted gross income on their 2019 tax return of $50,000 or less and who had to report to a job outside of their home for at least 200 hours from March 22 through May 14. They would have to hold one of the long list of jobs considered “essential critical infrastructure” under the bill.
The Department of Revenue would verify an applicant’s eligibility, and the state’s Board of Commerce and Industry would have to approve the applications before payments are made.
But disagreement remains over how to fund the $50 million in payments, raising questions about whether a deal can be reached before the special session must end June 30.
Republican legislative leaders want to take the money from more than $500 million in federal aid set aside to reimburse local governments for expenses responding to the virus outbreak. Democrats want the dollars to come from $300 million in federal aid earmarked for small business grants.
The House committee adopted language by Rep. John Stefanski, a Crowley Republican, that targets the local government assistance money to pay for the $250 one-time supplement for workers.
“I want to make sure that our small businesses are protected as well,” Stefanski said.
Willard said local governments are “in dire need” of assistance to help with their virus-related expenses.
“I promise that I will try to find a compromise,” Stefanski told Willard.
House Bill 70: www.legis.la.gov