New Hampshire Senate Democrats are backing a proposal that would increase unemployment benefits and make it easier for certain out of work residents to access those benefits moving forward.
The measure faces opposition from business groups, which caution that companies already bruised by the coronavirus pandemic would ultimately be on the hook to fund the expanded benefits.
Under the proposal, which cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday as an amendment to a proposal for an unrelated study committee, recipients of unemployment benefits would receive an additional $100 per week. Those benefits, which are based on an applicant’s earnings in the prior year, currently range between $32 and $427 per week.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted more than 200,000 residents to file claims for benefits during the past few months. The unemployment rate currently stands at more than 16 percent.
“It is very important that if we are going to keep people afloat, keep people spending money in our economy, that we increase this,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat from Concord, during a public hearing Thursday morning. Feltes also said this would be the first across-the-board increase to benefits in New Hampshire since 2002.
The proposal would also allow applicants who fear exposure from COVID-19 at their job to collect benefits.
“Choosing between work and public health, you shouldn’t have to choose between the two, if at all possible," said Feltes, who is running for governor. "They are not mutually exclusive."
Under emergency orders issued by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu at the start of the pandemic, new categories of workers currently qualify for unemployment insurance, including self-employed people and those who have been advised by a health care provider to avoid work due possible exposure to the coronavirus.
The requirement that those collecting benefits actively search for work was also sidelined.
The federal government responded to the pandemic with its own emergency package, including a $600 weekly enhancement for anyone who qualifies for unemployment, with that additional payment set to expire at the end of July.
The combined state and federal unemployment benefits, according to some in the business community, are hampering companies' ability to retain workers as they attempt to reopen.
“They are being told in many cases, ‘I’m making more on unemployment now than I would in compensation, so why should I come back?’" said Dave Juvet, with the Business and Industry Association, a statewide chamber of commerce.
New Hampshire Employment Security, which manages the state’s unemployment system, cautioned that the increased benefits would cause the unemployment trust fund to run out of money in September. At the current benefit levels, the fund is due to run dry in November, according to Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner, who testified on Thursday.
The unemployment benefits plan will now head to the full Senate for a vote. The measure is part of a package of bills announced by Democrats earlier this week as part of its Granite Promise Plan.