Right-Wing Austerity Set New Orleans Up to Be a Coronavirus Disaster Zone

New Orleans — Back in 1997, when Steve Scalise was a Louisiana state representative, he joined other right-wing lawmakers in co-authoring and passing a “state preemption” law that prevents city governments from raising the minimum wage for their residents. Today, Rep. Scalise is one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, and Louisiana is one of only five states where the wage floor is frozen at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. More than one in four children live in poverty in Louisiana, which remains one of the poorest states in the nation despite modest gains in recent years.

While the minimum wage preemption law does not mention any city by name, activists say the Democratic stronghold of New Orleans — with its history of activism, bustling urban tourist economy and large numbers of Black voters — was clearly a target. Despite its cultural richness, New Orleans had the highest poverty rate among the nation’s 50 largest metro areas in 2017. After coming under pressure from activists, the New Orleans City Council passed a resolution last year urging the state legislature to end the state minimum wage preemption so the city could raise its wage floor. So far, lawmakers have failed to act.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, poverty is once again exacerbating an economic and public health crisis in Louisiana and New Orleans.

New Orleans is considered a hot spot for infections, with 3,148 confirmed cases and 125 deaths as of Thursday. The number of cases in New Orleans and across Louisiana ballooned this week as testing became more widely available. The number of confirmed cases statewide spiked by 2,726 from Wednesday to Thursday, reaching a total of 9,150, according to the state health department. As of Thursday, 310 deaths were reported statewide, and the per capita death rate in New Orleans remains one of the highest in the country.

Experts say poverty is a driving factor behind an explosion of COVID-19 cases in New Orleans, where low-income families are crammed into substandard housing and 53 percent of households do not have enough savings to survive at poverty levels for three months without income. About 20 percent of households do not have any internet access, a major source of news and public health information about the outbreak that many of us take for granted, according to The Data Center. New Orleanians are more likely to have underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes that increase the likelihood of severe COVID-19 outcomes than residents of other hard-hit cities, including New York City and Seattle.

New Orleans is known for its resilience in times of crisis, but the signs of disaster are now hard to miss. Businesses are shuttered, and tens of thousands of people are likely out of work. Louisiana is running out of ventilators, and the local convention center is being converted into a makeshift hospital with thousands of beds to care for COVID-19 patients overflowing from hospitals. Refrigeration units are set up outside a suburban morgue and at least one hospital to hold the bodies of COVID-19 victims that funeral homes are currently unprepared to take.

Nurses and health care workers on the front line of the pandemic continue to report working without N95 masks and other protective gear that prevents the spread of disease, thanks to nationwide shortages and relaxed federal guidelines, according to online nurses’ forums and workers who spoke to Truthout on the condition of anonymity. Across the city, nurses report suffering emotional breakdowns on a daily basis.

While much media attention has focused on how recent Mardi Gras celebrations and New Orleans’ unique social culture may have contributed to the spread of coronavirus, activists and experts say years of austerity at the state level and deeply rooted structural racism created the conditions that have made New Orleans a coronavirus hot spot and weakened Louisiana’s ability to recover from the pandemic’s economic damage.

Republicans Block Paid Sick Leave

Former Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal revised Scalise’s minimum wage preemption law in 2012, signing a highly partisan bill into law that added mandatory paid sick leave for workers to the list of labor measures that city governments are banned from requiring of private businesses. Today, activists are clamoring to change the law so cities like New Orleans can expand paid sick leave for untold numbers of workers who are currently forced to choose between paying their bills and staying home to care for themselves or their family members during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This is part of a national trend of neoliberalism and right-wing politics that has come from a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and white supremacy in the South since the founding of the nation,” said Benjamin Zucker, an organizer with Unleash Local, a statewide coalition of grassroots groups fighting to end state preemption of economic reforms. “It’s not an accident that it’s majority-Black cities like New Orleans and Jackson and Birmingham that want to be able to raise wages and pass paid sick leave laws that are being stopped by majority-white conservative state legislatures.”

At the time, Jindal was already eyeing what would be a failed bid to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, according to Davante Lewis, the public affairs director at the fiscal watchdog group Louisiana Budget Project. Preventing progressives in city councils across the state from passing local paid sick leave requirements was one way to shore up his conservative pedigree.

“Gov. Jindal, from the moment he was elected, had his eyes on the White House and was trying to go down the conservative-style policy playbook,” Lewis told Truthout in an interview.

Clarionta Jones is a 24-year-old activist with Unleash Local’s New Orleans chapter. She works at a dollar store on the city’s west bank. In a letter to a local newspaper this week, she pointed out that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards says that Louisiana residents must stay home to slow the spread of the virus, but her job is considered “essential.” While a federal coronavirus stimulus package passed by Congress contains paid sick leave provisions, small businesses and large companies with more than 500 employees are exempt, including Jones’ employer. Edwards extended the stay-at-home order until April 30 this week.

“Essential dollar store workers like me, sanitation workers, and fast-food workers need to stay healthy if the community is going to stay healthy,” Jones writes. “State laws don’t guarantee pay for workers who need to stay home, but there is a law that stops our local leaders from doing what they need to protect our city.”

Jones says that for her and many other workers, there is “no way to win.” She has two young children and her partner was laid off due to the statewide order to stay at home. She must work to “keep a roof over our heads,” but she knows that customers are not safe when workers like her must take health risks to survive financially.

“By banning New Orleans and other cities from setting our own, local paid sick leave policies, the state is forcing workers like me to choose: Stay home to protect my co-workers and customers or go to work sick to pay my bills,” Jones writes.

Thanks to activists like Zucker and Jones, state lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation this week that would lift the state preemption law that bans municipal governments from writing their own labor and paid sick leave laws. With the COVID-19 crisis underway, dozens of lawmakers in both parties have expressed support for the bill, according to Unleash Local.

However, the legislature only met briefly this week before suspending its session due to the coronavirus outbreak and the stay-at-home order. Last year, the Republican-controlled legislature rejected a proposal to create a paid sick and parental leave policy that would have provided 80 percent of state employees with paid time off to recover from illness or care for a newborn child.

Zucker said that if state preemption were lifted, action in New Orleans would be swift. The mayor, city council and most voters support raising the minimum wage within the city limits and establishing paid sick leave requirements.

“At the minimum we should be allowed to do what people here overwhelmingly want to do,” Zucker said. “Let us have some democracy here.”

Louisiana Among States “Significantly Underprepared” for Recession

New Orleans is a blue oasis in a deeply red state, and conservatives have long controlled the state legislature. Lewis said Louisiana has yet to recover from Jindal’s two terms in office, when Louisiana joined states across the country in slashing funding for public health departments and other social services as tax revenues dropped during the Great Recession. Like many other states, funding for public programs was never fully restored in Louisiana.

For example, Lewis said the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services, which administers childcare and nutrition assistance to low-income families, had 2,400 more employees in 2008 than it does today. Jindal also privatized “charity” public hospitals in New Orleans and elsewhere, allowing profit-seeking contractors to infiltrate the health care system’s safety-net institutions.

“We are completely dependent now on the free market,” Lewis said.

Gov. Edwards is a Democrat who appeals to conservative voters with anti-choice and pro-gun stances and staved off a Republican challenger last year to win a second term in office. Despite his conservative positions on some issues, Edwards pleased progressives by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act during his first term, something Jindal refused to do as he padded his right-wing resume ahead of the 2016 campaign season. Without the Medicaid expansion, about 500,000 people would be without health coverage as COVID-19 courses through the state, according to Lewis.

However, Lewis said Louisiana has yet to reinvest in its education and public health system after years of Jindal-era austerity, and Edwards has battled with lawmakers in the past to extend a temporary sales tax and prevent the state’s education and health care systems from suffering massive budget cuts. Louisiana has the second highest combined state and local sales tax rate in the nation. Sales taxes hit lower-income and working families the hardest, rather than wealthy property owners and private businesses.

As working families pinch their pennies in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the state is facing a massive revenue deficit. The City of New Orleans alone currently faces a “catastrophic” $100 million deficit, according to local reports.

“We have built the economy off of an upside down tax code that let powerful interests manipulate the tax code,” Lewis said. “I keep saying that coronavirus just reveals the underlying epidemic we were already facing, which is poverty.”

Meanwhile, Louisiana has seen a bigger increase in unemployment due to coronavirus than any other state, according to WalletHub. Gig workers and those working in informal economies, which are major sources of income for many people living in tourist-heavy New Orleans, are among the hardest hit as economic recession looms. Louisiana is heavily dependent on revenues from the oil and gas industry, which is facing a financial crisis as fuel prices plummet globally. A recent economic “stress test” of state government budgets conducted by Moody’s Analytics ranks Louisiana among more than a dozen states nationally that are “significantly underprepared” for a recession.

“We’re going to have to now be fighting for the little bit of social safety net that we have left in this state,” Lewis said. “Louisiana is woefully unprepared for a recession.”