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Trump’s criticism of stimulus package adds uncertainty for New Hampshire unemployment beneficiaries

  • A note on a locked door at the New Hampshire Employee Security center, which handles unemployment claims, gives directions to those in need in Manchester, N.H., Thursday, April 16, 2020. Due to the virus outbreak, a note on the office door requested that all claims be handled remotely either on the phone or online. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 12/26/2020 12:30:35 PM
Modified: 12/26/2020 12:30:24 PM

The $900 billion stimulus package passed by Congress this week would provide a critical extension for New Hampshire families relying on unemployment insurance, a state official said. 

But if President Trump opts not to sign it, or chooses to delay his signature until certain aspects are changed, those families are facing a Dec. 26 cut-off for unemployment benefits.

The uncertainty was heightened during a Tuesday evening video address last week in which Trump lambasted the 5,000 page bill, which combined an end-of-year government spending agreement with a long-sought coronavirus stimulus bill. Trump took issue with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to foreign countries, which he listed individually, as well as additional budget priorities he called unnecessary. And he said that the $600 one-time federal aid payments were too low, proposing a $2,000 payment instead. Republicans quickly rejected the increased aid.

What had been hoped to be a smooth transition for unemployment insurance recipients in New Hampshire suddenly becomes more complicated as the stimulus bill spins into chaos.

The stimulus package, agreed to by Congressional negotiators Dec. 20, would extend two key expansions of unemployment assistance passed by Congress in March, all of which are set to expire Dec. 26.

The first, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, allowed new categories of people to receive unemployment benefits who would not normal qualify – in particular the self-employed and anyone who left their job due to COVID-19 related reasons.

The second, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program (PEUC), created a 13-week extension for the maximum number of weeks people can receive unemployment benefits continuously. In New Hampshire, that maximum is usually 26 weeks; which was extended to 39.

The two programs, the PUA and the PEUC, worked hand-in-hand to expand unemployment systems in all states as they were hit with record claims early on in pandemic. The effect: More people could apply for unemployment, and those who did got up to 39 weeks of benefits.

Because the bulk of benefit recipients in New Hampshire signed up in late March, as businesses shut down and restaurants reduced staff, many of those in the system are about to hit their 39-week cap this week, according to Deputy Commissioner of Employment Security Rich Lavers.

And the PUA and PEUC programs themselves were set to sunset Saturday.

Enter the new stimulus package. The bill extends the PUA and PEUC programs by an additional 11 weeks, starting Jan 2. That means recipients can get up to 50 weeks of unemployment if they first started filing claims in March, when the programs started. The new sunset date for the program is the weekend of April 3.

Additionally, the bill brought back federal enhancements to unemployment assistance, providing an additional $300 a week to the state’s unemployment benefit. An earlier $600-a-week enhancement passed by Congress in the spring expired in July; since then, recipients in New Hampshire have received a maximum of $427.

The new bill, if signed by Trump, would allow New Hampshire recipients of unemployment insurance to receive a maximum $727 a week, depending on their last salary.

The bill also seeks to provide more options to unemployment insurance recipients facing overpayment notices. Those notices are sent out to people whom the Department of Employment Security deemed to have received unemployment benefits in error and recipients must pay back the money, which can add up to tens of thousands. Families may appeal the finding or apply for a waiver, which the state can grant if the repayment would create a sufficient financial set back for the family.

For months, the state has not been allowed to grant waivers for overpayments relating to federal programs. The new stimulus bill allows the state to grant waivers for all programs.

In total, $25 million of the over $1 billion in unemployment insurance distributed since March has been found to be erroneously paid out, Lavers said. That represents 10,000 recipients of unemployment benefits in New Hampshire since the crisis began.

Most of those recipients have so far not appealed the decision or sought waivers, Lavers added.

Implementing the $300 a week boost is expected to happen seamlessly; the money will be distributed through the same mechanism set up by New Hampshire over the summer to disburse the extra $600 per week, Lavers said.

What happens next in Washington is unclear. Lavers said he and state officials in all 50 states attended a virtual conference call Tuesday afternoon held by the U.S. Treasury to walk through the expected extensions.

Two hours later, Trump released a video decrying the new stimulus package. But he stopped short of promising a veto.

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