NH panel rejects plan to boost workforce through debt relief

Keene Sentinel
Published: 1/4/2022 11:43:01 AM
Modified: 1/4/2022 11:42:21 AM

Though business owners across the state have struggled to fill open jobs, a legislative committee earlier this month failed to act on a proposal meant to attract workers to New Hampshire.

The plan would have used $17 million in federal pandemic relief funds to pay off up to $20,000 of student loan debt for more than 1,000 people who agree to take a position in New Hampshire and hold that job for four years.

Pitched by the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery, the measure was tabled 10-0 on a bipartisan vote by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee.

The program would be a waste of money and unfair to those who paid off student debt without government help, state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said in the Dec. 17 committee meeting. He also said that under the program, the government would be taking over the traditional role of business in recruiting employees.

“I don’t think we should be incentivizing people in pecuniary ways to come to a state that is already the best place to live. People that want to live here are here and people who don’t want to live here are going to leave.”

But some employers say such incentives would help fill vacant jobs, including at hospitals trying to handle the winter surge of COVID-19 patients.

Cheshire Medical Center in Keene employs about 500 nurses, but is looking to hire another 57.

Don Caruso, president and CEO of the medical center, said financial incentives can be a powerful recruiting tool.

“Loan forgiveness has long been a mechanism to get individuals to join a profession and work in a state. The state has long had a program which has been either unfunded or poorly funded,” he said. “I have advocated for this for many years.”

Caruso said he would favor a program targeted at students who are attending in-state nursing programs and agree to remain in New Hampshire.

The state has a college graduate incentive program, under which New Hampshire companies that choose to participate can pay qualifying graduates $1,000 per year for the first four years of their employment.

Pam DiNapoli, executive director of the N.H. Nurses Association, said Thursday she attended the committee meeting and was disappointed to see lawmakers table a proposal that would have used federal money and not been a drain on state resources.

“That’s the concern,” she said. “The money is coming in and not being used appropriately to increase the workforce.”

Taylor Caswell, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Relief and Recovery, appeared before the legislative committee to speak in favor of the proposal.

“I think what we’re trying to do here is create a program that addresses a need in our state right now for workforce, and particularly a workforce that has had some recent training,” he said.

“We could take all of the people currently not working in New Hampshire and assign them to jobs that are available in New Hampshire and still be short. So this is one attempt to create an opportunity for people to decide to come to New Hampshire and take a job in New Hampshire and work for our employers.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled a preliminary estimate of 50,000 job openings in New Hampshire in October, the latest statistics available, while the state had 16,270 unemployed people.

In arguing against the proposal, Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Rockingham, put forth a hypothetical situation in which someone decided to go into the military or a plumbing training program, only to regret that decision later when learning the government offered a college loan forgiveness program.

“Wouldn’t we be setting up the message that they made just a really bad decision because they didn’t gamble on the state creating a raffle?” he asked Caswell. “Wouldn’t that family feel like this was an irresponsible government to pick winners and losers after they made a critical life decision?”

Caswell said he couldn’t speak to every potential outcome of this or any program.

“I’m just going to continue to say that this program is designed to assist employers,” Caswell said. “No program that we’re able to provide resources for is going to necessarily be able to accommodate for every possible scenario that’s out there.”

Voting in favor of tabling the loan forgiveness program were Giuda, Edwards, Reps. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough; Keith Erf, R-Weare, Tracy Emerick, R-Hampton, and Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge; as well as Sens. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester; Gary Daniels, R-Milford; Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, and Chuck Morse, R-Salem.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

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