301.519.9237 exdirector@nesaus.org
A group of several workers apply a fresh coat of paint to the side of the Holiday Inn at 4848 Constitution Ave. near College Drive. Louisiana’s unemployment rate dropped below 3% in November, as the state added 11,300 jobs month-to-month..STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING/theadvocate.com

5.22.24 – NOLA

The Louisiana Legislature has given final approval to a pair of bills that removed mandatory lunch breaks for teen workers and cut unemployment benefits, sending the legislation to Gov. Jeff Landry’s desk.

The bills’ final passage marked a victory for several planks of an ambitious conservative labor agenda unfolding in the legislative session that’s set to close on June 3. They had filed bills to gut public-sector unions, slash worker benefits and reduce workers’ ability to be made whole through lawsuits — an overall effort that saw mixed results, with all of the anti-union bills appearing dead.

House Bill 156 on Tuesday passed the upper chamber on a 26-11 vote. That bill carried by Rep. Roger Wilder, R-Denham Springs, would eliminate a requirement in state law that 16 and 17-year-old workers receive a 20-minute lunch break when they work five or more hours at a time.

Wilder’s bill outraged Democrats and child labor advocates; but the sponsor, who owns a number of Smoothie King franchises in the Deep South, said he was simply trying to give workers more opportunity to earn wages while they’re on the clock.

“If you’re 16 or 17 years old and you have a job, you’re there for one reason: You want the check,” said Sen. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who presented the bill for Wilder in the Senate. 

Many teen workers don’t want to spend time they could be on the clock sitting for a lunch break, Seabaugh added, calling the current law “absurd.”

Seabaugh also presented Rep. Troy Romero’s House Bill 119, which cuts the maximum period during which workers can collect unemployment benefits in a given year from 26 to 20 weeks. The bill advanced from the Senate Tuesday on a 27-11 vote. The legislation also cuts the amount of time for which claimants can collect benefits when the unemployment rate is low; only when the rate hits 8.5% will workers be able to collect benefits for the full 20 weeks.

Romero, R-Jennings, argued in a House hearing earlier in the session that the bill would push laid-off workers back into the job market. But critics have said said the system will disproportionately harm rural parishes whose unemployment rates fall below the state’s overall rate. And they noted that Louisiana’s unemployment benefits are already among the lowest by dollar amount in the country. 

Both votes fell largely along party lines Tuesday with Republicans supporting the two bills and Democrats opposing them.

Democrats hit back on both of the bills, calling them attacks on working people and vulnerable young workers. 

“I err on the side of helping people when they’re down on their luck, when they’ve lost their jobs,” Sen. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, said during debate over HB 119. He argued that reducing the number of benefit weeks from 26 to 20 is not necessary because Louisiana’s unemployment insurance trust fund is healthier now than in recent years as unemployment rates have dropped.

“For that six weeks of time, that can be make or break for some families,” he said.

Landry, a conservative Republican, has not publicly stated his position on either of the measures. His signature would make them law. 

Even as the Senate advanced the two labor bills on Tuesday, a number of other conservative labor priorities have faced hurdles. 

Last week, the Senate’s Labor and Industrial Relations Committee killed a trio of bills aimed at weakening some public-sector unions, which in Louisiana represent sanitation workers, teachers, corrections officers and others.

The bills would have required unions to hold secret-ballot elections, made it harder for them to collect dues through payroll deductions and outlawed employees from discussing union-related business while they’re at work. The three measures exempted police and firefighter unions.

Other bills targeting unions’ ability to collectively bargain with employers remain alive, but have stalled at various stages of the legislative process.

James Finn covers state politics in Baton Rouge for The Advocate | The Times-Picayune. Email him at jfinn@theadvocate.com.