New claims for state unemployment benefits hit a five-month high last week, an increase driven primarily by seasonal layoffs, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Climbing unemployment claims come as federal emergency relief programs are about to end, which could take away federal benefits that tens of thousands of Mainers have relied on for months. A bipartisan relief bill being negotiated in Congress could extend those programs and add supplemental weekly jobless payments.

About 3,100 new or reopened claims for state unemployment benefits were filed last week, the highest number since mid-July. Another 900 claims were filed for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. Most of those applications are for people who had exhausted state benefits and were shifted to the federal program, the department said Thursday.

Maine typically sees unemployment claims rise in mid-December as seasonal industries such as construction and landscaping lay off workers, the department said. However, new claims in recent weeks have been double what they were in years past, indicating the pandemic continues to affect Maine workers and businesses.

About half of the initial claims were filed by people who were laid off early in the pandemic, found work, were recently laid off again and reopened a claim, said labor department spokeswoman Jessica Picard. Those claims are coming from sectors that have had seasonal layoffs in previous years, she added.

“Temporary-help businesses that assist the construction industries are seeing the usual layoffs that occur annually, as well as the hospitality sector,” Picard said. “We are seeing layoffs in lodging and eating and drinking places, some of which are ones that occur annually, and some of which could be attributed to businesses having temporary closures or reductions in staff due to COVID-19.”


About 43,600 continued unemployment claims for state and federal benefits were filed last week, up from 42,400 the previous week, the department said.

Federal unemployment programs that have kept some workers out of abject poverty during the pandemic will expire at the end of the month unless Congress and the White House reauthorize them.

A $900 billion relief package proposed by a bipartisan group of senators this month would extend federal benefits into 2021, but for how many weeks is still under negotiation, according to a spokesperson for Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who worked on the proposal. The bill also would add a $300-per-week supplemental payment for those collecting unemployment benefits.

A deal on the relief bill appears close, but congressional leaders were still working out details of the plan Thursday.

Nationally, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose again last week to 885,000, the highest weekly total since September, as a resurgence of coronavirus cases threatens the economy’s recovery from its springtime collapse, the Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that the number of applications increased from 862,000 the previous week, according to AP. It showed that nine months after the viral pandemic paralyzed the economy, many employers are still slashing jobs as the pandemic forces more business restrictions and leads many consumers to stay home.

The number of claims was much higher than the 800,000 that economists had expected, it said.

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