Who knew 2020 would unfold as it did? Who knew what “social distancing” meant a year ago? Who knew we’d be wearing face masks, hand-washing ad infinitum and disinfecting surfaces over and over? Who knew we’d be avoiding friends, co-workers and even family for much of the year? Who knew businesses would be forced to shutter for a time, our economy would tank and sputter back to life, unemployment would spike and businesses would close as the year progressed? Who knew elective surgeries would be put off, hospitals would fill with COVID-19 patients, infection rates would rise and fall and rise again? Who knew we’d be dodging COVID-19 bullets every time we left our homes?
Like all of us, business leaders are struggling too. They’re trying to figure out how to navigate choppy pandemic waters to keep their enterprises afloat and employees employed. In a recent BIA member survey, 70% of respondents reported a loss in revenue since the start of the pandemic, some up to half. While most BIA members are considered “essential,” we’re also aware of the precarious situation “non-essential” businesses like restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and many others find themselves in. The last thing employers, already besieged with pandemic challenges, need is public policy leaders in Concord further burdening them with higher costs and more regulations. Employers need help from state policy makers.
The Business & Industry Association (BIA) has compiled a list of some of the most important measures legislators, the governor and state policy makers should embrace to help enterprises of all shapes and sizes in every corner of the state find their way to calm waters:
Create a Legal Safe Harbor
A legal safe harbor is needed to protect employers acting in good faith from spurious lawsuits from those claiming to have contracted COVID-19 in the workplace. Sixteen other states have already created such protections. New Hampshire should do the same. BIA has offered language for a bill similar to what other states have already approved. It would provide protections for the vast majority of employers who are following federal and state health and safety guidelines while holding “bad actors” accountable.
No Business Tax Increases
Crafting the next two-year state budget without hurting employers is not an easy task even in the best of times. State budget writers will be grappling with a COVID-19-caused deficit in the current budget, recently estimated to be as high as $200 million. Solving this challenge while crafting the next biennial budget, without hurting employers, means policy makers must resist raising business taxes to generate revenue. Like non-government employers, the state must tighten its belt and delay unnecessary spending, among other measures.
COVID-19 has devastated NH’s unemployment trust fund balance. It was flush a year ago, but the pandemic changed that.
The fund, used to pay unemployment benefits, may run dry this quarter. That will mean higher than usual unemployment insurance taxes for employers, even for those who’ve been able to avoid laying off employees. Last legislative session, provisions to increase weekly benefits or permanently expand eligibility to receive unemployment benefits gained traction but were defeated (in part through BIA’s efforts). Adding additional burdens on the fund, and by extension, employers, will make a bad situation worse.
Don’t Cut Medicaid Funding
Policy makers should resist the temptation to shortchange health care programs like Medicaid when constructing the next state budget. The program provides health coverage to some low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities. Underfunding the program leads to cost shifting in the form of more expensive health
insurance premiums for employers and their employees. That’s another expense employers are simply not able to absorb right now.
Appropriately Fund USNH & CCSNH
The University System of NH and the Community College System of NH are the state’s leading source of talent. Appropriately funding these two institutions to ensure affordability and access for NH students is critical as employers recover territory lost to the pandemic. Given the state’s aging workforce, the fresh talent these two institutions supply is even more relevant.
Jim Roche is president of the Business & Industry Association in Concord. For more information, visit biaofnh.com.