Signs in a bookstore window in Brunswick encourage residents to stay home on April 2, 2020, the first day of Maine's mandatory stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Janet Mills to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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Maine surged to a third straight week of record-high jobless claims last week as the new coronavirus outbreak continues to place the U.S. economy under unprecedented stress.

Unemployed workers in the state submitted 30,900 new claims for the week from March 29 to April 4, up from the previous week’s 23,761, according to Maine Department of Labor data released Thursday.

The number of claims in the last three weeks is more than double the total claims that Maine saw in all of 2019. In the week from March 8 to 14, before strict limits were placed on business activity, the claims were 634. Initial claims averaged close to 800 in the same week in 2018 and 2019.

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Nationally, seasonally adjusted unemployment insurance claims were down slightly from last week to 6,606,000 for the week from March 29 to April 4, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The department revised the previous week’s level up by 219,000 to 6,867,000, which is more than double the week before that..

Last week’s claims in Maine were more than five times the high of 5,634 new weekly claims from the Great Recession in 2009 and more than double Maine’s previous record during the state government shutdown of 1991. Continued claims increased to 41,334 from 21,962 the previous week.

The state distributed more than $10 million in benefits to laid-off workers last week, Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a statement. She said the hardest hit industries are food services and lodging, health care and social assistance, retail trade and manufacturing.

The influx of new claims crashed the labor department’s payment system earlier this week. Many trying to file claims have reported issues contacting the department for help. Fortman has said the department has tripled the number of people answering calls by hiring new staff, bringing back retirees and reassigning staff from other areas of the department. Her goal is to have 100 additional people answering phones by the end of this week.

Fortman recommended that people file their claims online with a computer as opposed to a smartphone and do so in the evening when internet traffic is less. The department has implemented an alphabetical weekly schedule for people who want to file claims by phone.

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

One upside last week was the opening on Friday of applications for the Paycheck Protection Program, a $350 billion federal loan package for small businesses that was part of the $2.2 trillion stimulus passed by Congress last month. As of late Thursday, 5,335 businesses in Maine were approved to receive more than $1 billion in loans. That’s up from 1,800 businesses approved for $511 million on Monday.

The record number of claims over the past three weeks signaled an expected escalation of jobless claims in the weeks and months to come, according to economists. Last Friday, the record-long streak of U.S. job growth for nearly a decade ended suddenly, rising to 4.4 percent from a 50-year low of 3.5 percent.

Economists polled by MarketWatch said the jobless claims have already pushed the unemployment rate above 10 percent, much higher than the officially reported 4.4 percent rate in March. They said the current pace of job losses could push the unemployment rate past 20 percent, coming close to levels of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1933.

In a report released March 24, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis predicted that 47 million people could lose their jobs in the second quarter of this year, from April through June. That translates into a 32.1 percent unemployment rate, or 8 times higher than the 3.5 percent to 3.6 percent of the past six months.

More than 87,000 Maine jobs could be lost by the summer as the coronavirus drags the country into a recession, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That is more than four times the jobs lost in Maine during the recession between 2007 and 2009.

Estimates of job losses are changing rapidly as the virus spreads. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that the national economy could lose 19.8 million jobs by July. It said that while a $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package could offset some losses to workers, many may need to remain out of work for months to stop the spread of the virus.

Watch: What does returning to normal look like?

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