Jobless benefits for business starters clear Senate hurdle

Should a laid-off worker be able to turn down a job and still collect unemployment benefits because he or she is starting a business?That was the question sparked by Senate Bill 142, the latest “pathway to work” program, which the state Senate passed Thursday on a 21-3 vote, though the bill next goes to the Senate Finance Committee, where it could face greater scrutiny.Under the bill, a limited number of longtime unemployed workers – primarily older workers – would no longer have to look for a job to receive benefits but could concentrate on starting a business.Instead of being available to work, the would-be entrepreneur would be available full time for “self-employment assistance activities,” which would be spelled out by the state Department of Employment Security.The amended bill requires that the person must check in once a week, and that the Employment Security commissioner Commission could cancel the benefits at any time if the endeavor was not deemed “appropriate.”The bill doesn’t define “appropriate,” but one concern was starting a company that would compete with the firm that just laid the worker off and was indirectly paying for his or her benefits.The benefits would be limited to 2.5 percent of the total number of unemployed workers and they could only be offered by those workers who fit the profile of someone who is likely to exhaust benefits: workers between 45-65 who are unlikely find employment in entry-level jobs. “What this bill does is grow jobs,” said Senator Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord. “It encourages unemployed workers to create their own jobs and perhaps provide jobs for others.”But Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, argued that if all of the approximately 950 people would be eligible for the program decided to join, it would cost the fund $427,000 a week, which could be passed on to existing businesses in taxes.”Do not force people to pay for others to start and operate another company,” Sanborn said. “I believe that’s a mistake.”While Sanborn only got two others Republicans to vote against the bill, other Republicans voted with reservations, and said they might change their vote once it got back from finance committee.”The devil is in the details,” said Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston.But Wolfeboro Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley, the majority leader, gave the amended bill his full support. The concern that a laid-off worker would start a competing business in the 26 weeks of unemployment benefits is simply not realistic.The more businesses you have, “the more people they will hire in the future,” and that would help prevent a drain on the fund, not augment it, he argued.With Republicans holding a 13-11 lead, Bradley’s vote might be crucial. But it probably won’t see smooth sailing in the future.”I don’t want to do anything that would drive businesses’ taxes up,” said Sen. Chuck Morse, R-SalemMorse, who heads the Finance Committee, scheduled a hearing on the bill for Tuesday, so that businesses would have a chance to weigh in on the idea. – BOB SANDERS/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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