Unemployment in NH

Unemployment in New Hampshire due to COVID-19 peaked at 18.5 percent during the

week ending May 16, according to data published by the N.H. Department of Employment Security. NHES changed its calculation for the affected unemployment rate, effective May 23, and now analyzes continuing unemployment claims, rather than total claims, as a percentage of the February 2020 labor force.

Rebecca Crowell is worried.

Crowell, 39, lives in Troy with her husband and their two daughters, ages 10 and 5. Before the pandemic, she worked part time at a health-care company in Keene.

After Crowell was furloughed on March 16 along with the rest of her colleagues, she filed a claim for unemployment insurance benefits with the state. The weekly checks she has received since early April helped the family pay for groceries, utility bills and an increase in their rent.

Now, Crowell is concerned they won’t be able to afford these expenses past the end of the month.

That is when the federal government will stop distributing unemployment aid designated specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

New Hampshire housing advocates and community leaders in the Monadnock Region say the expiration of this assistance will force many residents to miss rent payments, reduce their grocery bills or forgo other important expenses.

In New Hampshire, the last week for which residents were eligible to receive FPUC benefits ended Saturday, although anyone claiming unemployment has not yet been paid for that week.

The FPUC program, which President Donald Trump signed into law March 27 as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, gave an extra $600 per week to Americans who qualified for their state’s unemployment assistance due to the pandemic.

Data published by the N.H. Department of Employment Security (NHES) show that as many as 166,000 New Hampshire residents — 21 percent of the state’s labor force — filed for unemployment insurance during at least one week between March 15 and July 11.

People claiming unemployment benefits from NHES, including some out-of-state residents who worked for New Hampshire companies, received more than $785 million from the FPUC program, according to Brian Gottlob, director of the N.H. Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.

In Cheshire County, 3,560 residents were still receiving unemployment assistance as of June 20, the most recent date for which data are available. NHES estimated that 8.6 percent of the county’s workforce remained unemployed due to the pandemic at that time — the second-lowest rate in the state and down from 16.1 percent as of May 16.

In a sign that New Hampshire residents are slowly returning to work, continuing claims statewide — those made by people who are already receiving benefits — fell for the sixth consecutive week, to 71,005, during the week ending July 11.

Crowell hopes that she, too, will be able to resume working in early August. For now, however, she is concerned about her family’s ability to afford basic expenses.

Crowell and her husband, a mechanic at the Honda dealership in Swanzey, earned about $1,500 every two weeks before the pandemic. Still, they budgeted well for an increase in their monthly rent — from $1,100 to $1,200 — that began in May, which they knew about before the pandemic.

Since Crowell’s work involves frequent close interactions with clients, her office closed on March 16, complicating their ability to afford the rent increase. Her husband, who was briefly furloughed in April, earns a weekly salary of about $400.

Crowell receives $188 each week from the state’s unemployment program. She and her husband were able to continue paying their bills with the additional $600 in FPUC assistance.

“If we didn’t have this extra money, we probably wouldn’t have been able to pay our rent,” Crowell said. “Groceries would have been probably the only thing we could afford.”

Costs up, income lost

Many people across the state may soon face similarly precarious situations, according to Ben Frost, managing director for policy and public affairs at N.H. Housing, a Bedford-based public entity that helps New Hampshire residents find and pay for affordable housing.

“The [FPUC] benefits have helped a lot of people make their rent and mortgage payments,” Frost said. “It’s pretty clear that the typical unemployment benefit is insufficient to meet the typical household’s weekly or monthly needs.”

Nearly 50 percent of New Hampshire renters spend at least half of their monthly income on rent, Frost said. With the expiration of FPUC assistance, he worries that some of them will not be able to afford rent at all.

“Some people will be looking at medical costs they have to deal with. Others are dealing with child care. Others are just trying to put food on the table,” Frost said. “You look at your immediate needs — getting medicine for a sick kid or getting the next meal for your family. In most cases, that’s going to take priority over paying your rent.”

The possibility of widespread missed rent payments is particularly alarming, housing advocates say, given the expirations of state and federal eviction moratoriums on July 1 and July 25, respectively.

Southwestern Community Services, which assists residents of low income in Cheshire and Sullivan counties as one of the state’s five community action agencies, typically helps about 4,500 families pay for their heating and utility expenses each year, according to its CEO, John Manning. But Manning expects that number will increase this year, due largely to the expiration of FPUC benefits.

“We know that we’re going to see a lot of people who have never come to us before and who, I suspect, may not have thought they lived paycheck to paycheck — until they lost a paycheck,” Manning said. “There’s going to be a much larger group of folks who are at risk of losing their housing.”

As a result, SCS is providing local landlords and businesses with information about the services it offers to people struggling with their housing costs. This year, rent is only one of the expenses that many families will struggle to afford, according to Manning.

“In addition to losing income, there are, in many cases, a lot of increased costs [for people out of work],” he said. “Child care, if it’s available, may be much more expensive. There may be medical bills. These folks need a lot of assistance to keep their heads above water, but that $600 has certainly helped a large percentage of [them] do that.”

An uncertain future

Nonetheless, it may be a while until anyone receives federal unemployment assistance again.

Congressional negotiations on a new stimulus package were delayed last week due to disagreement among Republicans over spending on the FPUC program.

In May, House Democrats passed a bill that would extend the $600-per-week stipend for those out of work due to the pandemic through January 2021.

But many Republicans are concerned the stipend may incentivize people who have received more from unemployment than they earned as a salary to stay home rather than return to work. Instead, GOP leaders proposed on Monday offering $200 per week as part of a plan in which states would provide up to 70 percent of what employees were making before the pandemic.

Phil Suter, president of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that some local business owners share these views. Suter said, however, that he does not believe many people remain out of work voluntarily.

“Not everybody is able to connect with a job that matches their skill set at the snap of a finger,” Suter said. “Most people, I think, want to be working … People would prefer to have that in their lives, rather than the uncertainty of some other kind of financial support.”

Suter added that the regional economy would likely be worse off if unemployed residents had not received an extra $600 each week.

“If people don’t have the money they need to pay rent and they end up being evicted … that doesn’t help us either,” he said. “We need to think about it holistically as part of a regional economic ecosystem and be supportive, if we can, to the elements of that ecosystem that need our support — whether it’s finding people jobs, helping them pay rent, helping them with food security or with other challenges that they face.”

Meanwhile, Crowell is thinking about which bills must be paid on time.

In addition to rent and groceries, that may also include Internet access so that her daughters can learn from home. Monadnock Regional School District, which includes Troy Elementary School, announced Monday that it recommends beginning the year with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

“We’ve been very fortunate having this extra money coming in,” Crowell said. “But with it ending, the anxiety of, ‘Am I going to be able to pay my rent?’ or, ‘Am I going to be able to get groceries?’ is definitely there.”

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.