A couple walks by a row of closed motels in Old Orchard Beach in this April 29, 2020, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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New jobless claims in Maine rose sharply last week as self-employed workers and independent contractors became eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time.

Mainers submitted 16,100 new jobless claims to the state for the week of April 26 to May 2, according to new data released by the Maine Department of Labor on Thursday morning. Mainers received $59.3 million in jobless benefits during the week ending May 2, and more than $240 million since March 15, the department said. It paid $77 million in all of 2019.

Of those, 10,500 claims were filed by newly eligible self-employed workers and independent contractors, according to the department. They became eligible for benefits under a new federal program included in the coronavirus relief package approved by Congress in late March.

The remaining 5,600 claims were for state jobless benefits, down 1,900 from the week before, the department said.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The state began processing applications for the expanded jobless benefits on May 1. A surge in claims from newly eligible Mainers caused the website the state uses to process applications to buckle under the traffic. New claims under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program cover those filed on May 1 and 2. The Labor Department said thousands of additional applications will be included in this week’s claims, to be released next Thursday.

More than 12,000 Mainers who previously filed for but were denied state jobless benefits will be automatically enrolled in the new federal program this week and begin receiving payments, according to the department.

“People in this category will receive an email and letter confirming that they are eligible under PUA and what their next steps should be,” said Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman in a Thursday statement. “This is a milestone step in getting unemployment benefits to Mainers who were not previously eligible.”

Total jobless claims over the past four weeks have totaled 48,502, or about 7 percent of Maine’s total civilian workforce. Jobless claims peaked the week of March 29 to April 4 at 30,899 new weekly claims. Those claims fell sharply to 13,421 for the week of April 5 to April 11, ending three weeks of record high unemployment filings. Jobless claims for the week ending April 18 totaled 11,561 and 7,420 for the week ending April 25.

Before new restrictions on businesses in the state took effect in March, 634 new jobless claims were filed for the week of March 8 to March 14, according to state data.

More than 108,000 Mainers have filed jobless claims since March 15. New claims each week since then have surpassed the state’s previous record of 5,634 weekly claims set in January 2009 during the Great Recession, according to state data.

Thursday’s report comes a day after lawmakers on the Labor and Housing Committee grilled Fortman about the state’s response to the unprecedented surge in jobless claims. Fortman said Wednesday that the current surge has “no comparison,” noting the state paid $77 million in jobless benefits in all of 2019, compared with $240 million over the past several weeks.

Fortman defended the state’s response, but acknowledged staffing shortages have hampered the state’s ability to answer questions by phone. A deputy commissioner, Kim Smith, told the committee the state plans to hire 138 people to assist with processing claims.

Maine’s unemployment rate stood at 3.2 percent in March, compared with 3.2 percent in February and 3.1 percent a year ago. That continues a four-year streak of record low unemployment, but the rate is based on labor force information culled during the week of March 12, before new restrictions curtailed economic activity in Maine to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Nationally, 3.16 million Americans filed jobless claims for the week ending May 2, down 677,000 from the previous week’s revised total of 3,846,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since the outbreak began, more than 33 million Americans have sought jobless benefits to weather the economic slowdown. That’s nearly 1 in 5 American workers, the Associated Press reports.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose 3.1 percentage points to 15.5 percent for the week ending May 2, the highest level ever since the seasonally adjusted rate was first compiled, the U.S. Department of Labor said.

Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers

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