To Soften Economic Blow Of COVID-19, Sununu Expands Scope of Unemployment Benefits

Mar 17, 2020

 

Gov. Chris Sununu (center) and other state officials announce an executive order expanding eligibility for unemployment benefits in an effort to help people hurt by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, March 17, 2020.
Credit Michael Brindley/NHPR

Gov. Chris Sununu issued a series of orders Tuesday morning aimed at softening the financial blow for New Hampshire residents dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.  

At a press conference with legislative leaders, Sununu banned all landlords from starting eviction proceedings and prohibited all foreclosures during the state of emergency initiated last week in response to COVID-19. He also barred utilities - including electric, gas, water, telephone, cable, fuel and internet providers - from disconnecting service for non-payment.

Sununu also expanded eligibility for state unemployment benefits to residents who lose work due to COVID-19; for people who are under quarantine or caring for a family member under quarantine; and for people whose employment is interrupted due to the statewide school closure that began this week.

"We're in uncharted territory," Sununu said. "So we have to make some bold decisions."

People seeking benefits, including the self-employed, can seek apply online at www.nhes.nh.gov, or call 603-271-7700.

Sununu and administration officials said expanding the scope of unemployment benefits was necessary, not only to help those suffering the greatest economic hurt from COVD-19, but also to ensure people were taking the safest public health steps.

“This will help to facilitate effective quarantine for those who feel that they are unable to quarantine for fear of lost income,” said Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner of New Hampshire Employment Security.

The state’s unemployment trust fund now contains about $300 million, about $30 million more than it did at the start of the 2008 recession.  The average weekly unemployment benefit paid out by the state is $333 per week; with a maximum weekly benefit of $427. Sununu and Lavers said the state fund can handle paying new claims as additional aid proposals are being debated in Washington.

Senate President Donna Soucy and House Speaker Steve Shurtleff joined Sununu at Tuesday’s announcement of the new executive orders. They’ve paused Legislative activities due to COVID-19 and said they are working with Sununu to address the crisis.

“The governor does have powers as the executive, which he is exercising, and will continue to” said Soucy. “We are here today to support and inform those decisions as much as we can, based on the information that we are given.”

Lawmakers have no set timetable to resume their duties. Shurtleff said the suspension would remain “until it’s an appropriate time for us to come back to Concord and go to work.”

State Workers Will Be Reassigned, Spending Crimped

Sununu, meanwhile, said he’s met with state department heads about redeploying workers in light of COVID-19 needs.

“Some of the more non-essential personnel, or personnel who are doing jobs or tasks that are going to be temporarily put on hold, they are going to be moved around,” Sununu said.

He also said the state is “putting a hold” on new hires and freezing capital spending on projects not yet underway. He said state revenues will no doubt be hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic and his executive orders, and that he told agency heads to find ways to save money.

“We are really going to leave no stone unturned,” Sununu said.

It’s difficult to predict now the impact on state revenues. Revenue from restaurants and bars, collected through the state meals-and-rooms tax, were forecast to bring in $25 million to the state treasury this month. That accounts for slightly more than 10 percent of total state General Fund revenues for the month.

Cannon Mountain, State Liquor Stores To Remain Open

Some key state enterprises, however, will continue to do business. State liquor stores will remain open without any change in policy, Sununu said.

“No, we are not contemplating anything,” Sununu said.

The state-owned Cannon Mountain ski area also remains operational for spring skiing, with curtailed lodge service. Sununu said he had no plans to change that.

“We think we have put the measures in place to allow folks to come up to the White Mountains and enjoy some recreation and do it in a safe way,” Sununu said.

Throughout Tuesday’s briefing, Sununu stressed that the future of the coronavirus is unknowable. In earlier COVID-19 updates, he’s been quick to rule out taking certain actions – declaring a state of emergency, closing public schools, and banning large public gathers – only to quickly reverse course. But he was more circumspect Tuesday.  Asked about San Francisco’s shelter-in-place requirement, Sununu said he didn’t expect such an order to be needed here. But he also said his administration was looking at the logistics of imposing such a policy in New Hampshire.

“We are looking at how that would work because it would be irresponsible to take anything off the table,” Sununu said.  “That is something I think we have all learned in the past week.”    

At least one New Hampshire restaurant has already permanently closed as a result of coronavirus restrictions on dining establishments.

Chef Brendan Vesey announced he’s shutting down his Newmarket restaurant, the Joinery, soon after the state-ordered pause on in-person dining. Vesey said he supports that mandate for public health, but he knew he wouldn't be able to keep paying his staff.

"I’m more concerned, I guess, about everyone’s health and well-being right now, but it’s just a pretty surprising thing to feel everything kind of yanked out from under you all at once,” Vesey said.

Vesey and his workers plan to file for unemployment under the new eligibility terms outlined by Sununu Tuesday morning. But after trying to navigate the state benefits website Tuesday, he said it seemed overloaded and he and his former employees had not been able to get through.

Additional reporting was provided by Annie Ropeik.