New jobless claims surged last week in Maine as thousands of workers rushed to take advantage of new benefits for workers who normally cannot access unemployment insurance.

About 16,100 Mainers filed initial unemployment claims last week, bringing the total number of people out of work since March 15 to 124,600. That figure represents roughly 18 percent of Maine’s civilian labor force.

Roughly 10,500 of those new claims were attributed to the implementation of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that allows self-employed workers, contractors and other workers to access jobless benefits for the first time, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Maine began allowing those workers to file claims last Friday.

The Labor Department said the 10,500 claims were filed in just two days and that thousands more have been filed since then and will be reflected in next Thursday’s report. Roughly 76,300 workers filed a continuing claim last week, meaning that they are still collecting unemployment benefits.

Since mid-March, Maine has paid out more than $240 million in unemployment benefits. It paid out $59 million last week alone. The majority of benefits are paid from the federal government, not the state’s unemployment trust fund.

Nationally, 3.2 million Americans filed jobless claims last week. The total number of workers laid off or furloughed since the coronavirus crisis began tops 33 million. The national unemployment rate for workers eligible for benefits is more than 15 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.


The department has been overwhelmed by the relentless pace of jobless Mainers applying for benefits. Many have complained about problems using the state’s online filing system and spending days trying to reach unemployment specialists by phone.

In a hearing at the State House on Wednesday, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said the department was working with Freeport-based retailer L.L. Bean to hire 138 people to help claimants. The department has gone from 13 unemployment staff in mid-March to about 100 now.

The retailer will conduct interviews on behalf of the department based on its knowledge of call center operations and needs, department spokeswoman Jessica Picard said. The department will make the final hiring decisions.

The new employees will work in a variety of jobs at the department, not just to answer phones, Picard added. The department plans to bring employees on by the end of May.

“This will help us hire for these new positions more quickly than we could otherwise,” she said.

L.L. Bean is assisting the state because of its experience hiring a large number of people in a short amount of time, spokeswoman Amanda Hannah said. The retailer makes a huge hiring push before every holiday season to handle booming sales.


“These discussions are ongoing and we are still finalizing some of the details,” Hannah said. “L.L. Bean will not profit from this partnership, as our goal is to simply provide assistance and support where we can across the state during this unprecedented time.”

The company is making face masks at its Brunswick stitching factory, and its distribution center has partnered with Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Until last week’s rebound, jobless claims had fallen every week since hitting a peak of more than 30,000 in the last week of March. Public-facing businesses have shed jobs at a higher rate than others, according to state data.

Almost 14,000 workers in the food service and lodging sector have lost their jobs during the pandemic, about one of every four workers. Losses are heavier for businesses in the entertainment sector, where nearly 30 percent of workers have been laid off.

A majority of jobless claims, more than 58,400, are not identified with a particular sector by the department because those workers filed fewer than five initial claims associated with any one specific employer.

That leaves an incomplete picture of which industries have been hit hardest by the economic catastrophe triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.


The Maine Department of Labor has not provided detailed data that show the towns, cities or counties that have lost jobs, the gender or race of jobless claimants or the specific types of business that have laid off workers. It only provides claims data for 18 broad industry sectors.

Some New England states provide substantially more information in data dumps about new unemployment claims. New Hampshire reports weekly numbers and unemployment rates by county and municipality. It also provides total claim numbers for 50 industries.

Massachusetts provides weekly and continued claims for 20 broad industry sectors and has data on race, gender and ethnicity of claimants. Vermont does not include industry- and sector-level data, but has geographic data based on claims by 12 career resource centers.

Picard did not directly respond when asked whether there is a reason the department cannot provide more detailed information about initial unemployment claims.

The Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information will put out a report “later this month that goes into more detail about the characteristics of those filing regular state unemployment claims,” Picard said.

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