Chairs sit on tabletops at 3 Dollar Deweys, a pub that remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Portland this this May 21, 2020, file photo. Under Gov. Janet Mills's tentative plan, bars will be allowed to reopen on July 1. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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Maine saw a “suspicious” spike in new jobless claims last week as the state grapples with a rise in fraudulent claims amid the employment crisis sparked by the coronavirus.

The state received 37,000 new jobless claims for the week of May 17 to May 23, according to new data released by the Maine Department of Labor on Thursday morning. Of those, 16,500 were for traditional state jobless benefits and another 20,500 were for benefits under a new federal program passed as part of a coronavirus-relief bill in late March.

That represents about 24,500 individuals who have filed claims. To qualify for the federal jobless benefits, Mainers must first be denied state benefits before they can apply for them under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

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Additionally, the department received 137,700 applications to continue state jobless benefits and 135,600 for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

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

That sharp spike in claims has stoked suspicions that “a significant number of these claims and certifications may be linked to criminal unemployment imposter fraud,” the Department of Labor said in a Thursday statement.

“We believe these higher numbers are evidence of the organized crime of unemployment imposter fraud, which many states are experiencing,” Maine’s labor commissioner, Laura Fortman, said in the statement. “The Department of Labor is committed to maintaining the integrity of Maine’s unemployment system and, alongside our partners, fighting fraud and defending innocent Maine people from scammers trying to exploit them.”

Fortman’s department is already investigating at least 1,000 claims for fraud and stopped another 2,200 possible fraudulent claims. Her department briefly paused jobless benefits this week and slowed down application processing to address the apparent rise in fraud at a time of unprecedented demand for aid during the coronavirus-fueled economic slowdown.

The Department of Labor is working with the Maine attorney general’s office, Maine State Police, the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI, among others, to investigate fraudulent claims.

An estimate for benefits paid out for fraudulent claims wasn’t available Thursday.

Total jobless claims over the past four weeks have totaled 96,283. 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, 26,600 for the week ending May 2, 21,000 for the week ending May 9 and 11,683 for the week ending May 16.

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 204,804 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.

The industries with the highest jobless claims include food services and lodging, with 17,867; health care and social assistance, with 11,680; retail, with 11,550; and manufacturing, with 7,190, according to the Department of Labor.

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On Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills delayed relaxing coronavirus-related restrictions for Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties. Mills allowed retailers and restaurants in 12 rural counties to reopen May 18, but kept restrictions in place in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Penobscot and York counties, where “community transmission” has been detected. Restrictions were set to relax in those counties on June 1, but now only Penobscot will join those other counties where dine-in service is now permitted.

Restaurants in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York will be permitted to offer outdoor dining service. Retail stores in those counties can open for indoor shopping on June 1.

Maine’s unemployment rose last month to 10.6 percent, compared with about 3 percent in March and February and 3.1 percent a year ago. That ended a 39-month streak of unemployment below 4 percent.

Nationally, 2.1 million Americans filed jobless claims for the week ending May 23, down 323,000 from the previous week’s revised total of 2.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since the outbreak began, more than 41 million Americans have sought jobless benefits to weather the economic slowdown.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell 2.6 percentage points to 14.7 percent for the week ending May 23, the U.S. Department of Labor said.

Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase

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