Much has been made of the fact that unemployment compensation checks will be reduced by $300 per week in New Hampshire as of June 19. That's because Gov. Chris Sununu is joining other Republican governors in opting out of a federal pandemic aid program.
But what might not be so well known is that about 15,000 people -- nearly half of those receiving unemployment in the state -- will lose all unemployment benefits as of that day because the governor is also taking the state out of other federal programs that expand and extend unemployment benefits.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance is one of those programs. It covers 8,600 people in the state who would not otherwise be eligible to receive unemployment compensation, some of them self-employed.
This includes those who have COVID-19, people living in a household where someone has it, those providing care to a family member who has it, people who have become the main support for a household because the breadwinner has died of the disease and those who had to quit a job as a direct result of the disease.
Another 6,500 people will lose their benefits because they were covered under Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which expanded the length of time for receiving benefits. Normal state coverage lasts for six months. Extensions under the federal program boosted this to about a year.
About 32,000 people are receiving unemployment compensation in NH, and about half of these can continue to receive benefits through the state program.
Sununu’s decision to cut back on unemployment benefits came at the urging of business groups that feel overly generous compensation is discouraging people from rejoining the workforce at a time when employers are struggling to fill openings.
This struggle is particularly acute as the tourist season begins in earnest.
On Monday, Florida became the 23rd GOP-led state to opt out of federally enhanced unemployment compensation.
Proponents of continued participation in these enhancements say low wages, lack of affordable child care and fear of contracting COVID-19 have more to do with keeping people jobless than unemployment benefits do.
For his part, Sununu said it makes sense to encourage people to rejoin the workforce since vaccination numbers are up and new cases are down. He also started a program providing a bonus of up to $1,000 for people who return to work.
Before his decision to end the $300 weekly boost in unemployment compensation next month, it had been set to end in September.
On Monday, the state announced 52 new positive COVID-19 test results and 411 people with current cases of the disease. At the height of the pandemic in December, more than 1,000 new cases were being reported daily.
About 46% of NH’s population is fully vaccinated and 58% have received at least their first vaccination, according to a state dashboard.
With workforce shortages that predated the pandemic and a current unemployment rate of 2.8% — tied for lowest in the nation — easing unemployment benefits certainly won’t solve all of the state’s labor issues. But state officials say it is a step in the right direction.
Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner of NH Employment Security, said the state has also restored the requirement that people look for work in order to keep receiving benefits. Virtual job fairs are being held across the state. Some employers are offering hiring bonuses.
“People are starting to realize the historic nature of the abundant opportunities available,” Lavers said. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. There is a trucking company in town that has a sign out offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus.”
In April, 736,000 people were employed in NH, 15,000 fewer than a year ago.
Lavers doesn’t think the state’s minimum wage, the lowest in the region at $7.50, is dissuading people from taking jobs since most companies are paying well over that amount.
Mindi Messmer, of the NH Science and Public Health Task Force, said prematurely ending federal unemployment programs in the state could have an effect on public health.
With half of the state not fully vaccinated, some people have legitimate health concerns about returning to work.
“About 55% of New Hampshire is not fully vaccinated, leaving plenty of room for variants to spread and mutate in the state,” she said. “What this hits hardest are frontline workers who make $10 an hour and have trouble surviving under normal conditions. The $1,000 signing bonus doesn’t begin to cover their costs. These people have suffered throughout the pandemic.”
On May 13, shortly after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased facemask recommendations for those who are fully vaccinated, NH state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan expressed concern.
“There are still a lot of unvaccinated people who are susceptible to the disease and there continues to be a substantial level of community transmission of the virus,” he said. “We’re still in this transition phase of the vaccine ramping up. There’s still a large percentage of the population that is susceptible to infection and unvaccinated and we’re still at a point where there’s still COVID-19 and risk in our communities.”
During most of the pandemic, more women were unemployed than men.
Lavers said this appears to be because business sectors that were the hardest hit — hospitality and retail — have an abundance of female employees. Women were also sidelined because of child care responsibilities and the burden of caring for kids during remote learning.
Brian Gottlob, director of the Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau at the state Employment Security Department, said averages from April 2019 to March 2020 showed 55.5% of the unemployed were male and 44.5% were female. For the same months a year later, during the pandemic, the numbers swapped: 55.6% female and 44.4% male.
Unemployment numbers also increased for young people, again because the sectors of the economy that typically employ them were hard hit.
New Hampshire has a small racial or ethnic minority and those percentages changed little.
No specific numbers were available for the composition of the population receiving benefits under the expanded criteria and extended duration afforded by the federal programs.
In any case, Lavers said the state is reaching out to those who will lose jobless benefits on June 19 and encouraging them to find work.
“Services in local employment offices are back open Monday through Friday,” he said. “There are a lot of available resources and tools to connect people to a new employer. People may find they are able to get a better job than they had before.”
He said long stays on unemployment tend not to be productive.
“It’s not good for the individual, and not good for the economy,” Lavers said.
“We don’t want people to pass up the opportunities that are out there. There are jobs available, there are incentives. We certainly don’t want to provide disincentives for people taking advantage of that.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.