The main drag is quiet in Old Orchard Beach on May 7 just weeks before the summer tourist season starts. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

Jobless claims fell slightly in Maine last week but remain well above those seen during the Great Recession as more newly eligible self-employed workers and independent contractors seek financial assistance during the economic downturn fueled by the coronavirus.

Mainers submitted about 21,000 new jobless claims to the state for the week of May 3 to May 9, according to new data released by the Maine Department of Labor on Thursday morning. Of those claims, about 11,500 were filed by self-employed workers and independent contractors who became eligible for jobless benefits under a new federal program Congress passed as part of a coronavirus-relief package in March.

Since March 15, Mainers have received more than $400 million in jobless benefits, compared with $77 million in all of 2019.

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

“With the implementation of the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program on May 1, thousands of Mainers who were not previously eligible for unemployment benefits are now receiving funds to help them support themselves and their families,” the state’s labor commissioner, Laura Fortman, said in a Thursday statement.

In order to receive benefits under the new federal program, Mainers must first be denied traditional unemployment benefits, meaning some people file applications twice. That means the overall jobless claims for both programs are higher than the actual number of people filing for benefits. The Labor Department said it would release a detailed breakdown in the coming weeks.

Total jobless claims over the past four weeks have totaled 66,581. 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, 7,420 for the week ending April 25 and a revised total of 26,600 for the week ending May 2.

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.

[iframe url=”” width=”600″ height=”450″]

Mainers have filed more than 156,000 jobless claims since March 15. New claims each week since then have surpassed the state’s previous record of 5,634 set in January 2009 during the Great Recession, according to state data.

The industries with the highest jobless claims since March 15 include food services and lodging, with 13,820; health care and social assistance, with 10,970; retail, with 9,830; and manufacturing, with 7,450, according to the Department of Labor.

Last week, about 87,000 Mainers filed claims to continue receiving traditional jobless benefits, while another 41,000 filed continued claims under the new federal program, according to the Department of Labor.

Thursday’s report comes as retailers and restaurants were allowed to reopen in 12 of Maine’s counties this week. The decision to ease coronavirus restrictions in more rural counties without evidence of “community transmission” marked a dramatic shift as the Mills administration faces growing criticism from business leaders and Mainers over the toll from the economic toll from measures meant to halt the virus’ spread. Community transmission has only been confirmed in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Penobscot and York counties.

Restrictions limiting the number of people allowed in businesses and requiring stricter cleaning remain in place in those counties.

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, 2.98 million Americans filed jobless claims for the week ending May 9, down 195,000 from the previous week’s revised total of 3.16 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since the outbreak began, more than 36 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 0.3 percentage points to 15.7 percent for the week ending May 9, the highest level ever since the seasonally adjusted rate was first compiled, the U.S. Department of Labor said.

Watch: The risks associated with reopening rural parts of the state

[bdnvideo id=”2974418″]