Early end to federal unemployment benefits pushes some toward brink

By: - May 24, 2021 6:15 am
A chalkboard sign advertises job openings at the Crust and Crumb Baking Co. in Concord

A sign at the Crust and Crumb Baking Co. in Concord advertises open positions. Many businesses in the state have struggled to find workers. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated May 24, 2021 at 9:30 a.m. to clarify that federal unemployment will decline $11.4 million per week after all federal benefits end June 19, 2021. 

Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to end federal unemployment benefits three months early has parents like Sherry Pratt in a panic. 

She lost her $60,000-a-year job when COVID-19 hit and hasn’t found work that would allow her to stay home with her special needs daughter every time the pandemic closes school or an aide quits. 

“I can’t take a job until I can hire somebody to be with my daughter,” Pratt said. “And I can’t hire somebody until I get a job.”

Sununu is one of at least 21 governors to announce the end of all federal unemployment benefits with a goal of filling some of an estimated 15,000 job openings in the state. That will not only end the $300 weekly federal benefit for anyone collecting unemployment on June 19, but also push nearly 15,700 Granite Staters off all unemployment aid. Sununu said he is also offering $500 or $1,000 cash bonuses to anyone who gets off unemployment, finds a job, and keeps it for at least eight weeks. 

Both moves have been cheered by business owners across the state. One of them is Daniel Masera who has owned Plymouth Ski and Sports for 30 years and says he can’t compete with the $300 weekly federal unemployment payments. 

“I’m down to one-and-a-half employees when I should have 11 to 15,” Masera said. Unless that changes, he’ll have to scale back his boating business this summer. “I have been placing ads in Indeed and not one click. I hope this spurs some people into action.” 

Sununu’s announcement has also enraged and worried advocates whose clients are at the edge of a financial cliff and soon to lose all their income. 

Pie chart on unemployment benefits
State unemployment (UI) makes up just $330 million of the more than $1.86 billion the state has paid out in unemployment benefits during the pandemic. A mix of federal benefits, which are set to end in September, account for the rest. All federal aid will end June 19. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) is the additional $600 that was paid to all unemployment recipients until July 2020. That payment is now $300 a month. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) is the weekly unemployment payments for those who do not qualify for state unemployment. This includes self-employed people and gig workers impacted by COVID-19 and others who leave the workforce for qualifying COVID-19-related reasons. Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) was a $300-a-week additional unemployment benefits paid for one week in September in 2020. Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) provides additional weekly assistance after someone has used their 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits. (Courtesy of the N.H. Department of Employment Security; created using Visme)

In his announcement, Sununu focused on the additional $300 paid to all 35,000 people collecting state or federal unemployment in New Hampshire. What wasn’t explained is that ending all federal benefits means that nearly 15,700 people who are collecting other federal unemployment benefits will receive nothing after June 19. This group does not qualify for state benefits and includes the self-employed; gig workers; people who’ve left work for a COVID-19-qualifying reason, such as caring for a child; and those who’ve collected the maximum 26 weeks of state unemployment.

Only the approximately 19,100 people receiving state unemployment will continue to receive payments, which average $277 a week but can range from $32 to $427 a week. 

Dawn McKinney, policy director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said Sununu’s decision to end federal benefits 11 weeks early disregards the most vulnerable. She estimates individuals and families will lose $11.4 million a week in assistance they would have received if Sununu didn’t cut it short.

While some Granite Staters may have recovered financially from the pandemic, many others have not,” she said. “Prematurely ending the 100 percent federally funded unemployment programs will hurt the families who can least afford it.”

Economists have also called it shortsighted because those federal dollars, which account for most of the unemployment aid, go back into the local economy. As of May, the state has paid out $1.86 billion in unemployment. Only $330 million has been with state money. The $300 weekly payment (which was $600 until July 2020) has brought $1 billion to the state. The other two federal programs ending early have brought $328 million for those who don’t qualify for state unemployment and $65.2 million for people who’ve used all 26 weeks of state unemployment.

According to a U.S. Census survey, just over 15 percent of New Hampshire respondents said in April that it has been somewhat or very difficult to pay for usual household expenses. Research by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute found women have seen more job losses and challenges re-entering the workforce than men. And low-wage workers, the least likely to have savings, have been hit the hardest with job loss. Since the pandemic, employment in that group has dropped nearly 29 percent, while employment among middle-wage workers earning between $27,000 and $60,000 is down 7.4 percent. Only the highest paying jobs have increased since the pandemic. 

A chart showing greatest impact on low-wage jobs
New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute

These same factors are often cited by the 4,600 members of N.H. Unemployment During COVID-19 Facebook group who say unemployment is their only option right now. If they can find day care, they can’t find a job that pays enough to afford it. They are caring for someone who is sick or at serious risk of dying from COVID-19. Or the job isn’t a good match because they don’t have the skills needed or the stamina required. 

In an analysis of its job postings nationwide, ZipRecruiter found that the top companies hiring are the ones that pay lower wages and are less likely to offer insurance benefits: Uber, Dollar Tree, Uber Eats, DoorDash, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. 

Stephanie McKay, administrator of the Facebook group, said she sees similar job openings in New Hampshire and couldn’t take any of them.

Her kids have been in remote school all year, and she is caring for her 83-year-old father with health problems. She’s vaccinated but still worries about bringing COVID-19 home to her father, and her middle-schooler has developed such severe anxiety, McKay is worried about leaving her alone. She could take a job that would allow her to work remotely but hasn’t found one. 

“I see jobs but they are seasonal jobs or in the trades,” she said. “How do you get ahead?”

Chart showing difficulty paying expenses
New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute

Mike Somers, CEO and president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said his members have seen the same obstacles. 

Ending unemployment benefits will bring some back to work, he said. But child care challenges and health risks for those who can’t get a vaccine will take longer to resolve. The travel and tourism industry has also been hurt by federal limits on visas for foreign workers. He said one employer who usually gets 25 workers from overseas is getting only eight this year. The association is focused on promoting jobs through job fairs, including one for the White Mountain area Tuesday. 

The Common Man Family is hoping flexible work schedules and above-minimum wages will help fill 60 to 80 jobs across its 15 restaurants and seasonal venues. Chief Operations Officer Sean Brown said hiring has been challenging for the past two years but has gotten worse since the pandemic. “It’s very hard to find the right person that you want representing your brand, to find someone with the hospitality gene,” he said. 

The Business and Industry Association and the New Hampshire Retail Association are on the other end of the unemployment challenge and lobbied Sununu to end the federal unemployment early. 

“I’ve had a major retailer say to me that in the 35 years he’s been working in retail, he’s never seen anything like this,’” said Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Retail Association. “Retailers and restaurants are closing some days and tailoring back their hours because they can’t hire help. Whatever we can do to get people back to work will be welcome by retailers.”

Kyle said employers are offering incentives they’ve not needed before, including signing bonuses, referral rewards to employees who recruit new workers, and flexible hours. 

“Employees can pretty much ask for anything and there’s a big chance they’d get it,” Kyle said.

ZipRecuiter found that more employers on its site are even offering “pet perks,” such as pet-friendly offices or paid pet insurance and grooming services. In the past three years, the number of job postings mentioning pet benefits has gone from 1.1 in 10,000 to 5.4 in 10,000, it reported. 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.

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