UPDATE: N.H. expands unemployment benefits to those affected by COVID-19, effective immediately

  • Gov. Chris Sununu stands with legislative leaders and state officials to announce broad new executive action to combat the COVID-19 virus in New Hampshire, March 17, 2020. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 3/17/2020 12:17:31 PM

New Hampshire residents who are laid off, in quarantine, caring for family members or watching over children are now eligible for immediate financial assistance, Gov. Chris Sununu announced Tuesday.

In an executive order released Tuesday morning, Sununu directed the state’s unemployment insurance fund to be opened up to provide relief for a broad category of people affected by the growing list of restrictions as a result of the coronavirus.

That includes any individuals with a current diagnosis of the virus; anyone self-quarantined or quarantined at the instruction of a health care provider; anyone caring for a family member who has the virus; anyone caring for a family member because of the closure of a school or business; anyone who is self-employed and losing work due to the virus; and any parents who aren’t working from home.

It also applies to all food service workers affected by the state’s order to have restaurants and bars immediately move to take-out dining services only. 

The benefits will take effect immediately. As part of the executive order, the ordinary one-week waiting period to receive unemployment insurance will be waived.

“These actions will help provide the necessary relief for individuals and businesses that are being affected by COVID-19,” Sununu said. 

Any resident interested in applying should go to www.nhes.nh.gov, said Rich Lavers, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Employment Security, which oversees the benefits. There, applicants can find a link on the left to access the application.

Applicants can also apply by phone at 603-271-7700.

Those who need the benefit will need to send in renewal applications on a weekly basis, Sununu said. The order will be in effect throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, state officials say.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of individuals accessing benefits and filing for these benefits by going online,” Lavers said. “It is a simple straightforward process.”

On Tuesday, Sununu also unveiled two other sweeping executive actions.

One order prohibits landlords from initiating evictions for tenants unable to pay rent throughout the crisis – and puts a halt to any judicial or non-judicial foreclosures in the same period. 

Violating that order and carrying out an eviction anyway is now against the law during the governor’s state of emergency. The Attorney General’s office has the power to enforce the order “through any methods provided by current law,” the order states.

The order does not, however, relieve the duties of tenants or homeowners to pay rent or mortgage payments.

A second action prevents utility companies, internet companies, and cable companies from shutting off access to gas, electricity, water, internet, cable, telephone and other services as the crisis continues – even if consumers are unable to pay.

At the end of the state of emergencies, those customers that fell behind on those payments can make a payment plan to reimburse the utility companies, but that payment plan must be at least six months, the order states. All late fees must be waived.

The spread of the virus has prompted a rapid succession of orders from Sununu in recent days. 

On Monday night, just before St. Patrick’s Day, the governor ordered that all bars and restaurants close their dining facilities, making exceptions for take out, delivery and drive-thrus. 

Those workers laid off or affected by that order are eligible for unemployment insurance immediately, Sununu said. 

The governor also banned all meetings or gatherings larger than 50 people Monday. 

President Donald Trump has recommended that no more than 10 people gather at once as health officials encourage people to remain at home if they can and practice social distancing.

Unemployment trust fund in “solid shape”

It’s unclear how many additional people might access the unemployment trust fund with the new order.

Before the virus hit, New Hampshire had 500 individuals filing first-time claims a week and 4,000 people filing continuous claims, Lavers said to reporters Tuesday.

In comparison, during the last recession, the state had 4,000 people filing new claims a week and 35,000-45,000 filing continuous claims, Lavers said.

Lavers declined to predict how many additional people might access the benefits as the virus continued to shut down large portions of the state. But he said that the state’s unemployment trust fund, currently hovering above $300 million is in “solid shape” to handle the expanded benefits.

“New Hampshire is one of 31 states nationally with a healthy, solvent trust fund,” Lavers said, pointing to reviews by the U.S. Department of Labor.

By law, the amount that businesses must pay into New Hampshire’s unemployment insurance fund is determined by how much is in the fund. If the fund is flush, businesses pay less; as the fund gets drawn down, businesses pay more. That means an increase in usage could translate into higher contribution levels for businesses.

But Lavers and Sununu said they expected that money from the federal government will materialize in the coming weeks that could reduce some of that load in New Hampshire. 

“We are hopeful that the federal government will take the action that they have been discussing and that we will be able to see some version of a disaster unemployment assistance program to assist Granite Staters and provide some relief to our trust fund as we progress through this crisis,” Lavers said. 

Restaurants facing crunch

These are hard times for New Hampshire restaurants. 

In the 24 hours since Sununu announced a ban on all in-house dining with the exception of takeout, restaurants across the state have laid off “a lot of their employees” and have some have shut down entirely, the governor said Tuesday. 

Sununu said he was calling up restaurant owners Monday night after announcing the decision. He talked to restaurants and officials in denser areas like Portsmouth and Manchester to help make the decision. 

“I think it’s very tough for a lot of them, to be sure,” he said. “I think they all, for the most part, understand it. They understand why some of these actions need to be taken.”

Sununu said there are some businesses “where the model just won't work” and will need to close, and other businesses that had already shut down during the difficult conditions of the pandemic. 

To the governor, it was a dramatic choice, preceded by top officials going back and forth weighing their options. But it was the right call, he said. In two days, he noted, the country went “from no states doing this to three-quarters of the states doing it.” 

“One of the governors on the call last night said ‘If you’re making a decision as a governor in this situation, and you feel comfortable about it, you're too late,’” Sununu said.

State exploring options for ventilators

With the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory illness that affects older people and those with pre-existing breathing conditions, health officials worldwide are concentrating on speeding up the production of ventilators.

The machines have been used in hospitals for the most severe cases. Health experts are bracing for a potential surge in coronavirus cases in the United States that could overwhelm existing resources, including ventilators. 

On Monday, during a phone call with governors, President Trump said the federal government would attempt to assist states in obtaining more ventilators, but that the states should "try getting it yourselves.”

On Tuesday, Sununu said the state had a “good supply today” of ventilators but called them “one of the limiting factors we anticipate down the road.”

New Hampshire is exploring its options, including working with hospitals to try to increase beds. And he said the state was making requests to manufacturers, distributors, and the federal government to get more. 

“We're talking to everybody,” he said. 

No plans for “shelter in place”

As officials in San Francisco and surrounding areas implemented a “shelter in place” order, requiring all residents to stay inside except for essential food shopping, Sununu said that New Hampshire is not contemplating that response given the level of cases so far.

“We are very fortunate that we are not in the position as some of the larger communities on the West Coast are," he said.

“We are not yet in that position, God bless it,” Sununu added. “Could we be someday? I suppose. I think anything is possible.”

While New Hampshire is not at that point, state officials have begun exploring how they would carry out a similar order if they had to, Sununu said. 

“It would be irresponsible to take anything off the table,” Sununu said. “That’s something that I think we’ve all learned in the past week.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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