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Legislative Council Approves Higher Unemployment Benefits

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LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas legislators approved a plan to add $300 a week to unemployment benefits, to extend the extra benefits available during the coronavirus pandemic.

The benefits will come from federal disaster relief funds. The state Department of Workforce Services administers unemployment claims and its officials hope the additional benefits will be paid soon after Labor Day.

Members of the Legislative Council approved the plan during a recent meeting. It would benefit an estimated 100,000 Arkansans who are currently not working.

The Council is the committee that oversees operations of state government during the interims between legislative sessions.

The Council also approved spending $100 million on the Arkansas Rural Connect program, which awards grants to local communities to expand access to high speed Internet.

Students are taking virtual classes and people are working from home, so the pandemic has focused attention on the need to enhance broadband capacity in rural areas, and in many cities and towns where Internet service is lacking.

The Council has voted to help county fairs by allowing them to spend money that had been allocated for premiums, typically awarded to young people exhibiting animals. County fairs are being cancelled or severely cut back this year. The Legislative Council voted to allow fairs to transfer almost $693,000 from premiums and use it instead to offset expenses.

The move is intended to help county fair associations survive the financial hit they are taking this year. Senators have said that when the legislature convenes in regular session in January, they want to provide financial help to county fairs so they can preserve their tradition of linking agriculture and education.

The Council also approved using $5 million in federal relief funds to help small meat processing plants expand. At the beginning of the pandemic, several major processing plants experienced slowdowns because workers were out sick, and bottlenecks in the industry drove up prices, according to the Agriculture Department officials seeking the $5 million in grants.

Arkansas has three small-scale meat processing plants that meet federal inspection standards, and they are eligible to apply for the grants. There are 40 custom meat processors in Arkansas that currently are exempt from federal inspections. They could get grants but first they would have to meet federal inspection standards.

Covid-19 Trends in Schools

            The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) has added a new category for school districts in its compilation of reported cases of Covid-19. The data will be updated weekly.

            The president of ACHI said the compilation is meant to inform parents, school officials and state policy makers about the risk level in schools, and whether the risk is going up or down.

            The ACHI reports are not the only numbers that state education officials will use if they have to decide whether to close a school because of a spike in cases.

The Education Secretary said last week at a daily briefing that the percentage of students choosing to stay home and take virtual classes falls within a range of 20 percent to 50 percent across Arkansas.

            ACHI also lists the number of cases in each county and by zip codes.

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