By Lily Bohlke, New Hampshire News Connection

CONCORD — A court hearing will determine whether thousands of Granite Staters can access some federal unemployment benefits that Gov. Chris Sununu cut off early.

Four people who were receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance before the June 19 cutoff are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last week to reinstate the benefit.

Stephanie McKay, moderator of a Facebook group called N.H. Unemployment During COVID-19, said if people were able to file back claims for the past three months since the cutoff, it would make a big difference, even though the program is ending at the federal level this week.

"The unemployed are being villainized," McKay contended. "They're being told you're lazy, you get a job. And I can assure you that the people that were relying on unemployment actually need it. They're struggling to keep up with just day-to-day expenses and looking for work and not finding it."

While New Hampshire was among the states that cut off benefits early in an effort to get people back into the workforce, studies so far have shown no increase in employment.

While the state cut off all the emergency federal benefits, this lawsuit is specifically regarding PUA.

McKay pointed out there is a lot of frustration for people who have not been able to find child care or work that pays well enough to cover their expenses.

"It's hard for them to take a lower-paying job, or two or three lower-paying jobs, and still not be able to pay the bills," McKay said. "[The] cost of living in New Hampshire is astronomical."

Mike Perez, attorney for the plaintiffs, said providing retroactive PUA payments would not cost the state anything; it is fully funded by the CARES Act, including administrative costs.

He said what makes PUA unique is it was specifically created to help people struggling during the pandemic who otherwise wouldn't qualify for unemployment insurance.

"So these are people who are self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors, or people who started a job soon before the beginning of the shutdown, and then stopped working but hadn't been at the job long enough to qualify for typical unemployment insurance," said Perez.

He encouraged Granite Staters who were relying on PUA to keep an eye out for the decision and be ready to file back claims. The suit follows similar cases in other states that cut off benefits early, some of which already have resulted in court orders telling the state to reinstate the program.

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