More than 9,500 New Hampshire residents filed new unemployment claims in two days this week — more than double the number in the worst week of the Great Recession a decade ago.

“It’s basically an unprecedented volume of people going to the website that are filing a new claim,” said George Copadis, commissioner for New Hampshire Employment Security.

“The system was pretty much overwhelmed,” Copadis told the Union Leader.

On Thursday the department assigned time slots for people to apply online based on the first letter of their last name. Unemployment offices are closed to the public because of the outbreak.

Fallout from the coronavirus crisis is expected to lead to tens of thousands of layoffs across the state. Gov. Chris Sununu relaxed rules this week for claiming benefits.

The state employs more than 67,000 people in the restaurant and lodging industry.

“Of that, probably half or more are probably trying to get unemployment,” said Mike Somers, CEO and president of the New Hampshire Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The governor this week banned restaurants from letting customers dine in until April 7, causing them to close down or greatly scale back sales.

“If it’s extended much beyond that; we’re going to see a whole lot of businesses close their doors and be done for good,” Somers said.

The news comes after the state recorded a historic high of 759,560 employed residents in February.

On Tuesday, 4,438 people filed fresh unemployment claims, followed by 5,075 others on Wednesday. That compares with 518 initial claims for the third week of March in 2019. The highest weekly total during the Great Recession was 4,058 in January 2011, according to Copadis.

“There’s been a very strong run into the unemployment insurance system, as folks can imagine,” the governor said at a news conference.

Brooke Watkins has been trying since Monday to file for unemployment.

When the Manchester mother of two finally got through on the website, she hit a snag and couldn’t get it resolved by the person answering the department’s phone, so her claim remains in limbo.

“It’s been such a nightmare,” she said. “The state completely wasn’t prepared like they thought they were.”

Information is available at nhes.nh.gov.

Store closings, including major malls, also will create an influx of unemployed residents seeking checks to help pay bills until they’re able to regain their jobs or find new ones.

Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Retail Association, said she didn’t know how many of the state’s 93,000 retail workers have been idled.

“I think they’re all in shock because things are changing minute by minute,” Kyle said. “We’ve never had anything like this before.”

The state enjoyed a 2.6% unemployment rate in February but now faces a flood of jobless claims.

“It seems inevitable it’s going to rise significantly from where we are now,” said Laconia economist Russ Thibeault. “The good thing is we’re starting at a very low unemployment rate in New Hampshire, but that doesn’t help people getting laid off now.”

Nationwide, initial jobless claims rose by 33% last week, according to federal figures released Thursday.

Claims for the week ending March 14 rose by 70,000 from the previous week to 281,000 nationwide, the highest level since September 2017.

The Common Man family of restaurants is laying off close to 600 of its 700 workers in New Hampshire, according to CEO Vincent Vella.

Business is off 85%, and while its 14 restaurants are serving takeout, that will be reviewed in the coming days. The layoffs cover the business’s restaurants, two inns, performing arts center, spa and company store.

Vella hopes he can welcome idled workers back on April 7.

“We’ll be able to take them all back if they’re willing to come back,” Vella said. “I think it (business) will come back somewhat quickly. There may be a little bit of a lag. We’ll take back everybody we had.”

The company is offering free take-home meals for displaced workers and is paying for health insurance for those who already have it.

The COVID-19 situation also delayed the scheduled March 30 opening of the Dave & Busters at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester. The restaurant and entertainment establishment planned to hire more than 200.

The mall itself is also shuttered, idling hundreds of retail workers there.

What’s Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire’s workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education.

Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com. To read stories in the series, visit unionleader.com/whatsworking.  

Thursday, May 28, 2020
Saturday, May 23, 2020
Thursday, May 21, 2020
Wednesday, May 20, 2020