The number of Mainers filing new claims for jobless benefits remained steady through mid-February at a rate far lower than at the height of the pandemic but still much higher than normal.

More people, including those who declined a job offer because of workplace safety concerns, could be eligible for federal benefits under new rules released by the Biden administration Thursday.

Roughly 2,150 new claims for state unemployment benefits and 250 claims for federal benefits were filed last week. In total, about 3,000 individual Mainers filed claims, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The number of state claims filed was up slightly from 2,025 a week earlier.

The four-week average of initial state and federal unemployment claims has trended gradually downward over the past four weeks, but the number of new claims filed each week remains more than twice as high as the same period of 2020, prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 50,000 continued unemployment claims for state and federal programs were filed last week, more than five times the number of continued state claims filed during the same period last year. Before March 2020, two federal programs that currently account for two-thirds of the continued claims in the state did not exist.

The number of people able to receive federal benefits could increase under new rules from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The rules extend benefits to people who lost state benefits because they declined a job offer or refused to work because of a workplace that did not follow coronavirus health and safety standards. They also cover those who have been laid off or lost hours as a direct result of the pandemic and school employees who have had regular pay disrupted because schools are closed.

“Today’s guidance opens the door to relief for workers who have faced difficult, if not impossible, choices between accepting employment in an unsafe workplace to receive a steady source of income, and protecting their health and that of their loved ones,” Patricia Smith, a senior adviser to the labor secretary, said in a news release.

Newly covered workers will be able to apply for benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The benefits will be paid retroactively, the Department of Labor said.

It could take state departments of labor until the end of March to implement the changes, it added.

Mainers collecting state unemployment have to prove they are looking for work, and can lose benefits if they decline a job. Last spring, hundreds of cases of workers who didn’t go back to work were reviewed by state labor officials.

A Maine Department of Labor spokeswoman did not answer when asked how many people in Maine the new federal rules will cover, how the state will determine eligibility or when the new rules will come into effect.

“The department just received the federal guidance from U.S. Department of Labor, and we are currently reviewing it,” Jessica Picard said.

Nationally, the number of unemployment claims fell sharply last week but remained high by historical standards, The Associated Press reported.

New applications for benefits declined by 111,000 from the previous week to a seasonally adjusted 730,000, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday. It is the lowest figure since late November, AP said. Before the virus erupted in the U.S. last March, weekly applications for unemployment benefits had never topped 700,000, even during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The latest figures come as the job market has made scant progress in the past three months, AP reported. Hiring averaged just 29,000 a month from November through January. Though the unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in January, it said, a broader measure that includes people who have given up on their job searches is closer to 10 percent.


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