Coronavirus

Gov. Chris Sununu announced Tuesday that New Hampshire will participate in the optional unemployment program established by President Donald Trump via executive order earlier this month.

On Aug. 8, the president signed an order extending boosted unemployment benefits, following the July 31 expiration of an extra $600-per-week benefit that was part of the federal CARES Act. Under the order, the federal government will provide $300 extra per individual in states that participate.

While the states are required to match with an additional $100 per week, the federal program will count unemployment benefits states are already paying out. People currently receiving less than $100 per week from the state of New Hampshire will have their benefits raised so they qualify for the extra federal money, Sununu said.

“It’s a chance to provide support to those who are currently unemployed,” Sununu said during a news conference Tuesday. “Or maybe individuals, family members, that have to be home with their kids, if their kids are in a remote-only learning program this fall.”

The funds will be administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has said it will provide initial funding equal to three weeks worth of unemployment benefits.

“Additional disbursements will be made on a weekly basis in order to ensure that funding remains available for the states who apply for the grant assistance,” FEMA said in a memo about the program.

According to a Tuesday news release from the N.H. Employment Security office, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for July was 8.1 percent. This is down from the 17.1 percent unemployment reported in April.

Congress has put forth several proposals for another round of COVID-19 relief funding, which have failed to gain traction. Unemployment benefits have been a sticking point, with Democratic lawmakers calling for the revival of the $600 weekly benefit and Republicans suggesting the benefit be lowered to $400.

To date, Sununu said, New Hampshire has paid out more than $1.2 billion in unemployment benefits since March, when the pandemic began in earnest in the Granite State and businesses began closing. He said that opting into the federal extension will bring around $340 million into the state’s economy during the next 22 weeks. The benefit will be retroactive to Aug. 1.

Sununu said only about 5 percent of those on unemployment receive less than $100 per week. It may take longer for them to get their increased benefit than those who are already receiving at least $100, who will see it in the next couple of weeks, he noted.

“The only stipulation there is that group will require a little more additional time, the program is a little more complex on the federal government’s side,” Sununu said. “They will be eligible for benefits, also going back to Aug. 1, but their checks probably won’t come for five or six weeks.”

When Trump signed the executive order, Sununu said the original cost estimate for New Hampshire to opt in was in the vicinity of $120 million and would have come from the state’s general fund. This would have made it difficult to participate, according to Sununu.

But new guidance from Washington has clarified that the state would be responsible for contributing less than $10 million. Sununu said the state can cover that from its unemployment trust fund.

Sununu said the federal government has allocated about $44 billion for this program, and if money runs out before a second COVID-19 aid package is approved by Congress and signed into law by Trump, the program would come to an end.

“When those dollars are done, they’re done,” Sununu said. “That’s why I think it’s so important that Congress acts and either allows this program to go forward, or refunds FEMA, or however they’re going to do it ... but they really need to come together in the next few weeks and make sure that these opportunities aren’t just temporary.”Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson