$300 unemployment boost has run out, New Hampshire officials say

Monitor staff
Published: 9/17/2020 4:31:56 PM
Modified: 9/17/2020 4:31:46 PM

New Hampshire has distributed $88.9 million in enhanced unemployment benefits this month, giving out a six-week, $300-a-week boost in one lump sum on Sept. 10.

But the funding stream has run dry, Gov. Chris Sununu announced at a press conference last week. The Trump administration program provided funding ranging from Aug. 1 to Sept. 5; for all weeks going forward, the boost will no longer apply.

The cut-off underscores the pressure being put onto lawmakers in Congress to pass an updated stimulus package that includes enhancements to unemployment. Last week, Sununu added his own.

“It’s really imperative that Congress move forward and actually vote on a law that allows this $300 program to continue, otherwise it’s simply out of money,” Sununu said at a press conference.

But for recipients of unemployment benefits in New Hampshire during the coronavirus, the recent change in federal support is just one of several major swings this year.

Before the pandemic, and the initial $600-a-week unemployment boost passed by Congress in March, those out of work in New Hampshire were provided unemployment benefits from the state system. That state system had an average payout of $240 a week, according to Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Employment Security Richard Lavers in an interview Thursday.

Then, the unemployment benefits boost started up, in March, with the passage of the CARES Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump. That act not only provided a dramatic boost for New Hampshire recipients, a jump from around $240 to $840 a week; it also incorporated new categories of people who could qualify as unemployed and get benefits, from contractors to freelancers to the self-employed.

The $600-a-week boost expired at the end of July, and Democratic and Republican leadership in the U.S. House and Senate could not find the means to resuscitate it. That’s when, on Aug. 8, Trump announced he would be bypassing Congress and creating a new unemployment assistance boost using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But after the $600 weekly benefits expired, Granite Staters did not immediately get the new stipend: $300 a week. The new program, the Lost Wages Assistance Program, took time to set up.

The program required states to set up a separate account to receive the federal money that wasn’t their existing unemployment funds, and it required that its recipients prove that their loss in unemployment was a result of the COVID-19 crisis, something the last round of assistance did not. The New Hampshire department had to work to update the payment system and wait on federal guidance, which was sometimes conflicting, Lavers said.

The result: Although the $300 program was backdated to Aug. 1, filers of unemployment did not get their weekly boost until earlier this month, when they received it all at once. The Department of Employment Security sent out all six weeks of benefits simultaneously – around $1,800 for most residents – spending about $89 million and assisting 66,278 claimants.

In total, residents receiving unemployment seesawed from receiving around $240 a week before the pandemic, to $840 in the first few months, back to $240 back in August. Then they received a lump sum of $1,800 in early September.

And as of last week, they are back to $240, with little certainty as to when lawmakers in Washington might renew the benefit boost. Both parties support passing a renewed boost to unemployment, but the sides have been deadlocked for months over whether and how much to support schools and state and local governments with federal funds.

Lavers says he empathizes with those whose personal finances have been in extreme flux as a result.

“I think that people that are filing for unemployment, just like all of us, they desire predictability and certainty, in terms of what they’re going to be eligible for,” he said. “The Department tries to provide as much information as we can so that … hopefully we can help them with their decision-making.”

The uncertainty comes as the state’s unemployment picture has vastly improved. Seasonally-adjusted unemployment in August was 6.5%, a drop from a high of 17.1% in April, according to figures released this week by DES. Lavers has noted that the speed of recovery so far has dwarfed that of the recovery from the Great Recession, when the peak unemployment rate took six years to halve.

Many aspects of this economic crisis are starkly different, of course. The 2009 Great Recession was catalyzed by a lending crisis and a housing bubble that took years to recover from, Lavers noted. The crisis in 2020 was prompted by a virus and an intentional shutdown of economic activity to fight against it.

That could mean there’s hope for a stronger and more expedient recovery in the meantime, Lavers says, barring a second wave of the coronavir

“It’s certainly much different and more complicated than prior economic downturns, where they were fueled by underlying weaknesses in your economy,” he said. “Here, it’s not an underlying weakness in the economy that’s fueling the workforce impact.”

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