WASHINGTON — The number of new U.S. claims for unemployment benefits rose for the third straight week, a sign that the highly contagious delta variant may be slowing the national job market’s recovery. But in Maine, initial claims fell to a new pandemic low.

Nationally, initial claims rose by 11,000 last week to 362,000, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday. Since topping 900,000 in early January, applications had fallen fairly steadily as the economy bounced back from last year’s shutdowns. But they’ve risen along with coronavirus infections.

The numbers, which are a proxy for layoffs, remain elevated: Before the pandemic hit the United States hard in March 2020, they were typically coming in at around 220,000 a week.

In Maine, initial claims fell by roughly 100 to a new pandemic low of about 600 last week, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

In addition to roughly 500 claims for state benefits, about 100 new claims for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance were filed by Mainers last week. Those claims were retroactive to before the federal program ended in early September and are still valid.

Continuing weekly claims, an indicator of prolonged unemployment, fell sharply to about 7,000 in Maine from 9,100 claims the previous week, as participation in federal aid programs continued to wind down. About 6,800 continuing claims were filed for state benefits, and the remaining 200 were for federal benefits.

America’s employers have rapidly increased their hiring since they slashed 22 million jobs in March and April 2020 as the coronavirus outbreak – and the shutdowns meant to contain it – brought economic activity to a near-standstill. Since then, the economy has recovered about 17 million jobs as the rollout of vaccines encouraged businesses to open and expand hours and Americans to return to bars, restaurants and hotels.

But hiring, which has averaged more than 585,000 jobs a month this year, slowed to just 235,000 in August as the delta variant disrupted the recovery. Restaurants and bars cut nearly 42,000 jobs last month as COVID-19 cases picked up, the first drop this year. Hiring is expected to pick up to more than 560,000 this month; the Labor Department issues the September jobs report on Oct. 8.

Altogether, 2.8 million Americans were receiving some type of jobless aid the week of Sept. 18, down by 18,000 from the week before. In early September, the federal government stopped additional aid – including $300 a week on top of traditional state benefits – that was meant to ease the economic impact of the pandemic.

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