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Unemployment Skyrockets in N.H., With 150,000 Fewer People Working

Dan Tuohy | NHPR
A closed storefront on State Street in Portsmouth

New Hampshire's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate ballooned to 16.3 percent in April, the highest level since local reporting on unemployment began in 1976, and a clear indicator of the coronavirus’s staggering impact on the state economy.

According to data released Tuesday by New Hampshire Employment Security, approximately 150,000 residents who had a job in March didn’t have one by April. The impact was felt across every sector of the economy, though retail, hospitality and restaurant workers were among the hardest hit.

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Before the pandemic, New Hampshire’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate recorded 51 consecutive months below 3 percent, and was consistently one of the lowest rates in the nation. 

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Although widespread layoffs began in late March following Gov. Chris Sununu’s ‘Stay at Home’ order and restrictions on business, the unemployment rate for that month was officially recorded at 2.4 percent, due to surveys being performed during the first part of the month, before the pandemic's severe impacts took hold.

While every major sector of the state’s economy saw job losses in April, some fields, including construction, manufacturing and education were spared the deep cuts seen elsewhere.

Accommodations and food service shed more than 60 percent of all employees, or nearly 40,000 workers. Approximately 20 percent of all retail workers were laid off. 

Many white-collar jobs in finance and business services saw only single digit declines. 

Many businesses including retail were allowed to reopen earlier this month, which should buoy the unemployment rate as summer arrives. Some economists, however, aren’t predicting a rapid return to normal.

“I think it will take a very long time, months if not years, before we get back to the kind of unemployment rate we are used to in New Hampshire,” said Russ Thibeault with Applied Economic Research in Laconia. "Probably years more than months."

He said the current climate is unusual in that a health crisis is creating an economic crisis. Without a vaccine, improved treatment options, or a reduction in community transmission (which is still occurring in New Hampshire), Thibeault said a full economic recovery is unlikely.

“I think before we see a major improvement in the economy, we are going to have to see a major improvement on the health aspects of this virus, and get it more under control,” he said.

The spike in New Hampshire’s unemployment rate coincides with the U.S. rate jumping to 14.7 percent for April, the highest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

New Hampshire’s previous unemployment peak during the past five decades was seen during the early 1990s when the rate reached 7.4 percent. In the summer of 2009, at the height of the so-called Great Recession, New Hampshire reached 6.5 percent unemployment.

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Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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