ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In less than a month, the U.S. economy has gone from full bloom to withered on the vine. The latest data point comes today in the form of weekly unemployment claims. More than 6.5 million people filed for unemployment just last week. That is more than the entire population of Louisiana, which is where we're going now. In that state, more than 100,000 people lost their jobs last week. Ava Dejoie is secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, which oversees unemployment for the state. Thanks for joining us during what I know is an incredibly busy time.
AVA DEJOIE: Thank you so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: How is the system in your state handling the record number of unemployment claims right now?
DEJOIE: Well, the system is functioning. Our third-party vendor which also services a number of other states - excuse me - has added service, added capacity. We had extra staff come in that worked outside of our unemployment insurance division to also help us to manage claims. We brought in a third-party call center to help with claims as well. We had done modernization of our systems. So we're managing through it.
SHAPIRO: And so do you think that these most recent numbers are accurate, or do you think there's still a long line of unemployed people who haven't been able to file because, as we've been hearing for the last few weeks, the application pipeline gets so clogged?
DEJOIE: The application pipeline does get clogged. But based on our weekly recertification numbers, which are those people we know they've gotten through the system - they've done their weekly certification - we're at 206,000. So that means that the system's working for those people.
SHAPIRO: OK. I do want to ask you about those weekly recertifications because I know the state of Louisiana has waived the requirement that people have to search for work while receiving unemployment. But as you say, they do have to check in each week online to keep getting a check. Why put in that requirement? Doesn't it just slow down the website? There have been reports of very, very slow loading times.
DEJOIE: Well, you have to let us know. I liken it to a timesheet. You have to let us know what your situation is. So some people may have gone back to work. They may be receiving wages. So we need to know those things, so that weekly recertification is critical in that process.
SHAPIRO: The maximum weekly benefit in Louisiana right now is $247 a week, which is one of the lowest in the country. What do you tell people who cannot pay their bills right now because the maximum benefit just is not enough?
DEJOIE: Well, that's set in statue by the legislature, and it will be up to the legislature to change that if they so choose. Our trust fund went broke back in '86, '87 at the height of the oil bust. So it is something that the legislature is very hesitant to do because we've gone through our trust fund, going broke in recent history.
SHAPIRO: And part of the $2 trillion dollar relief package that Congress passed includes an additional $600 a week for people who've lost their jobs. Some states have already started dispersing that money, but Louisiana's governor has said that money won't start reaching people till next week. What is the holdup?
DEJOIE: Well, I think we're one of only a few states that has actually started to release that money. It does require programming in our computer system. The feds actually allocated the money. We received it just two days ago. So we received 85 million in our first allocation of that money two days ago. The week before that, we received guidance over the weekend. So our team is working around the clock 24/7 to push those funds out.
At the same time, we're getting lots of questions about fraud. So we have to balance how we're good stewards of the money but how we're also helping the people. We've paid 27 million in benefits from our state trust fund this week and a - and 21 million the week before. So we are processing claims, and we're helping every individual. And our staff are committed to continuing to help every single person we can.
SHAPIRO: Another part of the federal relief bill ensured an expansion of benefits to independent contractors, gig workers. These may be performers or Uber drivers. That's the federal response. Has your state, Louisiana, taken steps to help these people as well?
DEJOIE: They will be the first people to receive benefits beginning on Monday of this week, so once we got...
SHAPIRO: Federal benefits, you mean.
DEJOIE: Yes. Yes, the funding starts on - well, the week ends for - your week of certification ends Saturday night. And funding will go out Monday morning.
SHAPIRO: Just in our last minute or so, you know, Louisiana - New Orleans specifically - relies so heavily on the tourist economy - bars, restaurants, hotels. What if those businesses and those jobs don't survive this shutdown?
DEJOIE: Well, I think it's - after our country has faced challenges throughout history is when we see the best. This is our opportunity to be the next greatest generation, and we'll have to figure those things out as a country and as a people. But we certainly - I come from New Orleans and know - I have family in those occupations. I've seen what happened to the city after Katrina with the rebirth. And I'm even more confident that New Orleans will come back stronger and better just as it has throughout its history.
SHAPIRO: Ava Dejoie is the secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission. Thank you for speaking with us today, and best of luck to you.
DEJOIE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.