By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
New Hampshire like many states has a labor shortage with many companies and businesses not finding the workers they need.
The pandemic is blamed for many of the problems, but in New Hampshire and other states the labor shortage has been a persistent problem for a while.
The pandemic, if anything, clarified some of the reasons many businesses cannot find enough workers, requiring some to reduce hours and in extreme cases, close.
Two studies released this week note the impact the pandemic has had on low-wage workers, who bore the brunt of the pandemic’s economic blow.
The New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute found the pandemic had the greatest effect on low-wage workers.
In the summary of the issue brief, “Uneven Employment Impacts and Recovery From The Covid-19 Crisis,” the institute found industries and regions of the state more reliant on service-based work experienced the largest employment losses.
“Many of these service industries paid lower wages, suggesting that workers in New Hampshire earning lower incomes were most impacted by lost or reduced wages, affecting their economic security,” according to the summary. “Analysis shows that lower wage employment was estimated to be 16.4 percent below pre-pandemic levels in New Hampshire in late June 2021.”
At the same time the state’s unemployment rate has returned to pre-pandemic levels, although the number of people participating in the workforce has decreased “due to key challenges such as the limited availability of childcare,” according to the brief.
An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trust found similar conditions in the state when using federally collected data.
Child-care has been a major problem for many people, but particularly women, who comprised nearly 60 percent of those collecting unemployment benefits when the greatest number of people lost jobs during the pandemic, who have been slower to return to the workforce.
Another known problem for many years is young people leaving the state both for cheaper higher education, and also after they graduate from state institutions, to pay off large debt loads due to the high cost to obtain their degrees.
Historically New Hampshire has had and continues to have some of the most expensive public higher education systems in the country and the legislature has never done anything to change that. Instead, during the 2011-2012 legislative session, state aid to higher education was cut in half to help make up for a budget shortfall, and to this day state aid has yet to return to the same level as before and factor in inflation.
And frankly, New Hampshire has never been a labor friendly state, with the scales tipped in favor of employers.
The percentage of unionized workers in the state is very small, compared to states like Massachusetts or New York, with the greatest percentage of unionized workers in the public sector, like state employees, teachers, police and firefighters unions.
Yet nearly every year, a lawmaker will introduce right-to-work legislation that would make the state the only one in New England to prohibit unions from charging non-members for negotiating and managing labor contracts.
The frequent fight over right-to-work legislation does little to enhance the state’s standing with workers.
And the government of New Hampshire has not been consistent on labor issues.
This summer Gov. Chris Sununu decided to end the federal unemployment benefit that provides an additional $300 a week — down from the $600 a week earlier in the pandemic — that also covers some individuals not included in state unemployment programs like self-employed individuals.
The federal supplements were funded through August under the latest federal recovery program but were ended three months early by the governor.
Sununu ended the supplemental pay at the urging of groups like the Business and Industry Association and the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association who were having difficulty finding enough workers.
Recent analysis shows ending the program early did force some into the workforce, but not a large percentage of those affected by the loss of benefits.
A lawsuit was filed recently over the early end of the payments that had an initial hearing last week.
The legislature this year passed a bill freezing the hourly wage of tipped employees at the current rate of $3.27 an hour or 45 percent of the current minimum wage of $7.50 an hour.
The bill, passed largely down party lines with Republicans in favor in the Senate and House, and signed by Sununu, would retain that wage even if the minimum wage were raised by the federal government.
This does not encourage a career in the hospitality industry.
New Hampshire does not have a minimum wage of its own and depends on the federal rate. The same legislature that sliced state higher education aid in half did away with the state’s minimum wage designation.
And this session the legislature routinely killed several bills to raise the minimum wage as it has for many years, although last term when Democrats were in control, the House and Senate passed bills increasing the minimum wage only to have them vetoed successfully by Sununu.
And it is not just wage increases lawmakers this session have turned away.
House Bill 113 would have required employers to pay an employee’s accumulated vacation time when he or she left the position. The bill died with a number of other Democratically sponsored bills at cross over without a vote.
House Bill 590 would have required employers to provide paid sick leave, something that gained a lot of traction during the pandemic.
The bill was killed largely down partisan lines on a 202-148 vote.
House Bill 501 would have set minimum pay for adjunct faculty in the university and community college systems at 75 percent of a full-time faculty member.
The bill was killed on a voice vote.
The House also did not want to even consider establishing a committee to study a living wage and the utilization of public assistance among low wage workers and their families in New Hampshire.
House Bill 563, like several others, died without a vote when no action was taken by crossover.
Senate Bill 123 would have prohibited an employer to require an employee or someone applying for work to have a test for COVID-19 without paying for it.
The bill also died in the House.
While lawmakers may not be the biggest fans of workers, almost all business owners are or they would not be around long.
It is like business tax rate cuts. Most businesses did not ask for the rate cuts or the rooms and meals tax rate cuts in this budget, but they sure are not going to turn them down.
However, New Hampshire government has set a tone over the years that does not make New Hampshire an attractive place for workers on the low-end of the salary scale.
And that is one of the reasons businesses are having a hard time finding employees these days, they can make more money in surrounding states.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.