May 27—New state unemployment claims hit their lowest point in Maine since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, an indication of an improving economy and employers' recent hiring spree.
Maine logged just over 1,000 claims for the state's unemployment insurance program during the week ending Saturday, the lowest number since mid-March last year, just before the coronavirus triggered a tidal wave of joblessness.
Overall, about 1,300 people filed a new jobless claim or reopened a previous claim for state and federal unemployment programs, the Maine Department of Labor reported Thursday. New claims are still more than double the number filed in the same week two years ago.
The number of continuing claims — filed weekly to maintain unemployment payments — dropped to about 40,600, the third-lowest weekly total since the start of the pandemic.
Only about one-third of continuing claims last week were for state unemployment aid — the traditional arrangement that benefits workers whose employer pays taxes into the system.
The remainder, about 29,000 claims, were for two federal unemployment programs that did not exist before last March.
About 12,700 claims were for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program for self-employed, contract and other workers not eligible for state assistance. Roughly 16,400 claims were filed for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, another federal program that extends benefit payments from the usual 26 week maximum to a full year.
The latest numbers point to Maine's economic recovery, which some businesses worry will be slowed by a tight labor market and intense demand for workers across nearly every sector of the economy.
A seeming disconnect between the high number of people claiming unemployment benefits and the high volume of employers clamoring for workers is spurred by a number of factors, said labor department communications director Jessica Picard.
Maine reinstated traditional work search requirements this month for those receiving unemployment aid. That means people collecting unemployment pay have to actively search for a job and take suitable employment if it is offered or risk losing their benefits.
A lack of affordable and accessible childcare and the need for more education and training is keeping some Mainers out of the workforce right now, Picard said.
Self-employed and contract workers still collecting unemployment or filing new claims under federal programs might not enter into the traditional labor force right away, either, Picard said.
"Many (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) claimants are in the process of reopening their own businesses and are not likely seeing work in other businesses," she said.
Seasonal businesses, especially those that deal in lodging, food and beverage and entertainment, face a yearly hiring crunch around this time, Picard added.
"It can always be a challenge to ramp up hiring for these types of seasonal jobs, due to the patchwork of workers it often takes — high school and college students, older workers, workers with visas, people such as teachers who have a full time jobs during the rest of the year," Picard said.
Nationally, the number claims for unemployment benefits dropped last week to 406,000, a new pandemic low and more evidence that the job market is strengthening as the virus wanes and economy further reopens, The Associated Press reported.
Thursday's report from the U.S. Labor Department showed that applications declined 38,000 from 444,000 a week earlier. The number of weekly applications for jobless aid — a rough measure of the pace of layoffs — has fallen by more than half since January, according to AP.
The decline in applications reflects a swift rebound in economic growth, it said. More Americans are venturing out to shop, travel, dine out and congregate at entertainment venues. All that renewed spending has led companies to seek new workers, which helps explain why a record number of jobs is now being advertised.