Economist predicts more job losses: ‘Still have not seen the bottom of this

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The academic economist who sits on Louisiana’s Revenue Estimating Conference said Thursday the state probably won’t stop shedding jobs anytime soon.

“We likely still have not seen the bottom of this,” said Stephen Barnes, who directs the Kathleen Blanco Public Policy Center at UL-Lafayette.

More than 66,000 Louisiana residents made initial unemployment claims last week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday. About 300,000 have begun receiving benefits since the pandemic began, Barnes said, and many more claims are pending.

According to data Barnes presented Thursday to a legislative task force focused on economic recovery, almost 45 percent of the accommodation and food services workforce has filed for unemployment, more than any other sector. In the mining sector, which includes the struggling oil and gas industry, claims have been surprisingly low at less than 10 percent, Barnes said, possibly because firms already were pretty lean.

The construction industry has been considered “essential” during the pandemic, said Louisiana Associated General Contractors CEO Ken Naquin, and about 75 percent of the projects planned pre-pandemic are ongoing. But much of that work will be completed by late summer or early fall, and there’s nothing else coming down the pipeline, he said.

State Sen. Bret Allain, who chairs the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, said lawmakers are working to pare down the legislation they will consider when they reconvene their suspended session on Monday. Spending bills must be approved before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

Though the regular session must end June 1, a special session is expected to be held this summer. Allain said lawmakers may also meet again this fall in a “cleanup” special session.

This year’s regular session is non-fiscal, which limits the financial matters that can be considered, though a special session could have a broader agenda. The legislature is required to meet and hear public comments in person, Allain said, though measures will be taken to allow for social distancing such as holding only one committee meeting at a time.

Many of the ideas discussed Thursday that speakers said would help the state’s economy recover are the same as what business leaders were pushing before the pandemic. Examples include tort reform, eliminating the state’s franchise tax, and creating a single centralized sales tax collector.

Some said they wanted to make sure unfunded safety mandates were not imposed on businesses, adding that some business owners would like help acquire personal protective equipment for their workers. Multiple speakers said businesses that are making a good-faith effort to protect their employees’ health should have some protection from legal liability if their workers get sick. And several complained that enhanced unemployment benefits were making it difficult to attract or retain workers who can make more money not working.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican, echoed many state-level Republicans in calling for a regional approach to reopening businesses currently shut down or limited by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ “stay at home” order.

“I think the governor has done a good job with coronavirus and managing the state through this,” Graves said. “I think that it is really important that we resume some degree of normalcy as quickly as possible.”