Signs outside a restaurant state their mask policy in Old Orchard Beach in this July 7, 2020, file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

Maine saw a spike in new jobless claims last week, but state labor officials said they are investigating whether that could be attributed to fraud.

Mainers submitted about 8,000 new jobless claims to the state for the week of July 5 to July 11, according to new data released by the Maine Department of Labor on Thursday morning. Of those, about 4,600 were for traditional state benefits, while another 3,400 were for benefits under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a new federal program approved by Congress as part of a coronavirus-relief package in late March.

That represents 4,400 people who filed claims last week. 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.

Since March 15, Mainers have received $1.1 billion in jobless benefits, according to the Department of Labor. It paid out less than $74 million in all of 2019.

Additionally, Mainers filed 60,000 applications to continue receiving state jobless benefits and another 23,900 sought to continue getting benefits under the federal assistance program last week, the department said. Workers must file applications every week to continue receiving jobless benefits.

Continued jobless claims fell slightly from the previous week, when 87,300 Mainers sought to renew benefits. But that still remains well above the high seen in April 2009 during the Great Recession when 28,564 out-of-work Mainers sought to continue receiving jobless benefits.

Labor officials on Thursday stressed that an uptick in jobless claims is normal in early July when mills and factories temporarily shutdown. But the Labor Department is “actively analyzing” the recent spike to see whether it is connected to a pattern of fraud that has dogged the unemployment system during the coronavirus pandemic.

For the week ending July 11, about 300 new and 1,800 continued jobless claims were canceled due to fraud. Since May 30, 25,000 new and 48,000 continued claims have been determined to be fraudulent, according to the Department of Labor.

Total jobless claims over the past four weeks have totaled about 23,900. 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, 11,683 for the week ending May 16, 37,000 for the week ending May 23, 24,500 for the week ending May 30, 6,700 for the week ending June 6, 5,900 for the week ending June 13, 5,600 for the week ending June 20, 5,200 for the week ending June 27 and 5,100 for the week ending July 4.

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.

Mainers have filed more than 252,600 jobless claims since March 15. New claims have surpassed the state’s previous record of 5,634 weekly claims set in January 2009 during the Great Recession throughout much of the pandemic, according to state data.

The industries with the highest jobless claims include food services and lodging, with 20,960; retail, with 15,057; health care and social assistance, with 14,869; and manufacturing, with 7,299, according to the Department of Labor.

Maine’s unemployment rate fell to 9.3 percent in May, down from 10.6 percent in April. That compares with about 3 percent in March and February and 3.1 percent a year ago. The economic slump brought on by the coronavirus ended a 39-month streak of unemployment below 4 percent.

Nationally, 1.3 million Americans filed jobless claims for the week ending July 11, down 10,000 from the previous week’s revised total of 1.31 million million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since the outbreak began, more than 40 million Americans have sought jobless benefits to weather the economic slowdown.

The national jobless rate fell to 11.1 percent in June as the economy added 4.8 million jobs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said last week. Job growth rose sharply in hospitality, with gains also seen in manufacturing, retail and other industries.

The national jobless rate peaked at 14.7 percent in April before falling unexpectedly to 13.3 percent in May. That is still well above February’s 3.5 percent, a nearly 50-year low.