NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Cornell Williams has played the biggest stages in New Orleans during his 30-year music career — from Tipitina’s to the House of Blues to Preservation Hall to Chickie Wah Wah and Jazz Fest.
“I was born and raised here, Doc,” said Williams, a versatile musician who specializes in funk. “Some people call me Mr. New Orleans.”
He’s a bassist for the Grammy-winning band Jon Cleary and The Absolute Monster Gentlemen and other groups, including Nell and Bel, which he and his wife Belinda Butler headline.
Williams made regular appearances on the HBO drama series “Treme” filmed in that famous New Orleans neighborhood and began 2020 with a packed calendar that promised a prosperous year.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Louisiana reported its first confirmed coronavirus case in March, which was soon followed by restrictions that closed bars and suspended live music.
“Who knew one day the world would shut down?” Williams said. “There’s no way I could prepare for this.
“I went from a full calendar of work and tours through the end of 2020 and into 2021 to zero. I have zero gigs.”
Williams was encouraged when Congress passed the CARES Act, which allowed people who are self-employed like himself to qualify for unemployment benefits. Normally, self-employed workers aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits.
Though he only qualified for $16 per week in state benefits, Williams and others received an additional $600 in enhanced weekly federal benefits to help with essentials.
“I’m taking care of my elderly dad on one side of my house and my wife and family on the other side, so the extra $600 definitely helped,” Williams said.
But those extra benefits expired on July 31.
President Trump issued an executive order that will restart an additional $300 enhanced weekly federal benefit beginning Wednesday in Louisiana that’s retroactive to Aug. 1, which means about 417,000 of the state’s jobless will receive $900 this week.
But Williams and as many as 67,000 other Louisianans won’t qualify because Trump’s order, unlike the CARES Act legislation, requires unemployed workers to receive at least $100 in state benefits to qualify for the $300 federal bump.
That leaves Williams with $16 per week in unemployment pay.
Since he lost the $600 federal weekly benefit in July, Williams is burning through his savings and earning a buck wherever and however he can.
Williams had to delay his interview with USA Today Network because he was washing and detailing someone’s car. “I have to find any little hustle I can at this point, Doc,” he said.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has asked Trump to reconsider the requirement or allow the state to meet the $100 threshold for everyone by averaging all of its payments to reach the minimum.
“We did send a letter to the president asking him and other folks at the federal government to revisit the executive action to allow us to aggregate all of our payments and then average those out to make those individuals eligible,” Edwards said.
“We have not received a response to that request yet,” he said Monday night (Aug. 24).
Williams said the policy puts his family in financial peril.
“It’s another example that the system is broken,” he said. “What I do and what other musicians do is a great benefit for Louisiana’s tourism industry, and I represent Louisiana as kind of a musical ambassador here or when I tour outside the state or abroad.
“So it doesn’t make sense to me that when we need help the state can’t find a way to even make us eligible for the enhanced unemployment benefits. I pay my taxes every year.
“I’ve never collected unemployment in my life. I’m the one normally helping people, not the one who is asking for help.The bottom line is there should be a safety net in place for us.”
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Louisiana’s chief tourism officer, said he’s concerned the financial hardship on musicians could damage the infrastructure of musical talent that draws visitors to New Orleans from all over the world.
“We have a global audience that comes to Louisiana for music,” Nungesser said. “We have to make sure that pool of talent is still here when the world opens back up.”
Nungesser said he has requirements in place to hire Louisiana musicians for state-funded programs and marketing campaigns, but those incentives don’t kick in until live music resumes.
“It’s a great concern,” Nungesser said. “I have reports of some musicians already moving to Florida.”
Williams said his inability to work impacts his soul as well as his pocketbook.
“As big as the financial stress is the inability to be able to go and perform and bring joy into people’s lives and to feel that joy return to me on the stage is even harder,” he said. “But at the end of the day all I want to do is bring awareness to our musical community so someone can fix the system.”