In this May 28, 2020, file photo, Amanda Labelle of Dandelion Spring Farm fills a cart for a farmer's market customer in Rockland. From meat to seafood and produce, farmers and fishermen have lost their restaurant business amid the coronavirus shutdowns and had to pivot quickly to sell more to stores or directly to consumers. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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New jobless claims last week fell to their lowest level since the coronavirus outbreak began in Maine back in March.

That slide comes as the Mills administration moves to relax more coronavirus restrictions, easing the economic toll from a monthslong effort to halt the spread of the respiratory illness.

Mainers submitted 6,700 new jobless claims to the state for the week of May 31 to June 6, according to new data released by the Maine Department of Labor on Thursday morning. Of those, 3,000 claims were for traditional state jobless benefits, while another 3,700 were for benefits under a new federal program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Congress approved as part of a coronavirus-relief package in late March.

That represents 5,400 individuals 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.

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

Additionally, Mainers filed about 101,000 applications to continue receiving jobless benefits — 77,700 for traditional state jobless benefits and 23,300 under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the department said Thursday. That marks the first time continued claims have declined since the coronavirus outbreak began. Workers must file applications weekly in order to continue receiving benefits.

Since March 15, Mainers have received more than $720 million in jobless benefits, according to the Department of Labor. It paid $77 million in all of 2019.

Thursday’s report comes as the state continues to contend with a spike in fraudulent jobless claims. That prompted state labor officials last week to cancel more than 12,000 initial claims and 17,000 weekly certifications found to be fraudulent for the week ending May 30.

“The Department of Labor continues to work with its state and federal law enforcement partners to investigate and stop fraudulent unemployment claims filed by criminals using Mainers’ stolen information,” Maine’s labor commissioner, Laura Fortman, said in a Thursday statement. “We are working as hard as we can to distribute benefits as quickly as possible, while continuing to fight this criminal activity and maintain program integrity.”

Thursday’s jobless claims report could be a sign that Maine’s economy is slowly getting back on track. Retail stores and restaurants have been allowed to resume business across much of the state, with indoor food service prohibited in only three counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland and York — where the most coronavirus cases have been detected.

Total jobless claims over the past four weeks have totaled 89,200. 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 and 24,500 for the week ending May 30.

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.

The state has received more than 236,004 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.

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, 1.5 million Americans filed jobless claims for the week ending June 6, down 355,000 from the previous week’s revised total of 1.8 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 peaked at 14.7 percent in April before falling unexpected to 13.3 percent in May. That is still well above February’s 3.5 percent, a nearly 50-year low.

Even as more states move to relax coronavirus restrictions and kickstart economic activity, Federal Reserve officials on Wednesday predicted that the nation’s jobless rate will hover above 9 percent through 2020’s end, according to The Hill. It could take years for U.S. employment to recover, with Federal Reserve officials forecasting joblessness to hover above 5 percent through 2022, The Hill reports.

Watch: Why Maine is tracking number of tests instead of people tested

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