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NH governor signs jobless benefits bill

Norma Love, Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill Thursday creating the Pathway to Work program that will allow a small percentage of jobless workers to continue to get unemployment benefits while they start their own businesses.

Under the new law, which took effect immediately, only 2.5 percent of unemployed workers can participate in the program at any given time.

"Pathway to Work will allow people to create their own jobs and perhaps jobs for others as well," said Hassan, who co-sponsored a similar bill when she was a state senator.

Anticipating Hassan's support, the state Department of Employment Security sent almost 400 letters to jobless workers identified as possible candidates for the program and created a brochure and website www.nh.gov/nhes/nhworking/pathwaytowork .

The program is aimed at workers who are unlikely to find jobs in their fields and will likely exhaust unemployment benefits. Supporters say perhaps a dozen people will qualify under the law's strict criteria.

Pamela Szacik, employment services director, said letters will be sent weekly to potential candidates. She said the department has gotten a few inquiries about the program but has not started accepting applications. People interested in starting a business must first attend a mandatory orientation and meet with an employment services representative to determine the steps required to successfully launching a business. After going through those steps, they fill out an application and undergo further screening.

The law requires eligible entrepreneurs to work with the state and the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center to create a business plan and receive business counseling and training. They must have at least 18 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits available and be willing to work full-time. They also must show an ability to sustain a new venture financially, such as through a loan.

Mary Collins, state director of the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center, said the program is similar to one the state had 20 years ago. She said 63 people participated in that program over 2½ years and two-thirds started businesses while the others returned to the workforce. Collins said it takes a special kind of person to succeed.

"They are innovative, self-starters, creative, risk takers. They are passionate. They have energy. They are idea people. They don't sleep and sometimes are a little crazy," she said.

She said some ideas for businesses might duplicate existing businesses and not qualify for the program.

The law was the top legislative priority for Senate Democrats, but passed the Republican controlled Senate on a bipartisan 19-5 vote. It ran into objections from some House Republicans that the bill unfairly made exceptions for a small group of people by giving them benefits without making them prove they are looking for work. Supporters pointed out only a few workers would qualify for the special treatment.

At least eight states — Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Louisiana — have similar programs.