A historic number of Mainers are continuing to collect weekly unemployment benefits, even as the number of new jobless claims has fallen to the lowest level in almost five months.

Nearly 80,000 continuing claims for state and federal unemployment benefits were filed last week, more than twice the highest number of weekly claims going back to 2003, according to Maine Department of Labor records.

A historically high number of workers seeking unemployment aid points to a depressed labor market and challenges returning to work faced by those with job skills devalued by the coronavirus pandemic, health concerns or inadequate child care options.

Claims for continued jobless aid fell sharply in early June, as more businesses reopened and rehired workers. But that decline has since flattened out, indicating the severity of the economic recession facing Maine and the country, said Michael Hillard, an economics professor at the University of Southern Maine.

“There has been some reopening, but based on limited anecdotal information, they are not hiring everyone back,” Hillard said. “It wasn’t a full recovery and we are still in the bottom of a recession. The outlook is that it will not get better until 2021.”

Roughly 53,100 continued claims were filed last week for state unemployment benefits, and 26,400 additional claims were filed for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, available to the self-employed, contractors and other workers not typically eligible for jobless assistance.

The number of people seeking continued jobless assistance remains stubbornly high, even as new unemployment claims sink.

About 1,700 Mainers filed initial unemployment insurance claims last week, the fewest new claims since the coronavirus pandemic steamrolled the state’s economy in mid-March. There were about 1,600 initial state claims filed, plus about 500 federal claims. The number of claims recently has exceeded the number of actual people who filed them because of the overlap between the state and federal programs.

Some local employers and pro-business groups claimed an added $600-per-week federal unemployment payment provided a disincentive to return to work.

That benefit expired last week and Congress has yet to be revive it or replace it. Employers in southern Maine have said they are struggling to fill dozens of jobs. More than half of small-business owners reported hiring or trying to hire in July, and most of those said they had few or no qualified applicants, according to the July jobs report from the National Federation of Independent Business.

But other employers have not rehired all of their employees or have hired fewer than expected seasonal workers because of slow business. There is no evidence that large numbers of Maine workers lost unemployment benefits because they refused an offer of work.

Rosemary Shaw, 69, was laid off from her job as a Medicare assistant in April. Shaw wants to return to work, but she has a health condition that would put her at high risk in an office environment. She has a doctor’s note that says she should not return to work unless the job can be performed at home.

Shaw said she has received conflicting information about whether she will be required to start looking for work to keep collecting unemployment aid, but that she won’t go through the motions just to receive benefits.

“As an honest person, I am not going to do a work search under false pretenses,” Shaw said. “There’s really nothing out there I could do at this time.”

In June, more than 10,600 benefit claimants in Maine, about 17 percent, were over the age of 60 – the age group public health officials say are at highest risk from contracting COVID-19. A spokeswoman from the labor department said older Mainers, who have been cautioned to take extra precautions during the pandemic, would be under the same job-search requirements as all other workers not connected to an employer.

Shaw said she is semi-retired and used her extra income to pay bills and keep her retirement savings intact. She has enough money to get through without working, but worries for the many who need aid to make ends meet.

“This has been a tremendous sacrifice on the part of Mainers and everyone in our country and our government is letting us down,” Shaw said. “When it is safe to go out and work again, that’s what I’ll be doing. Hopefully that will be in the next year or so.”

Employers are supposed to report to the department if their employees refuse an offer of work and people that refuse jobs may go through a fact-finding process to determine if they are still eligible for jobless aid.

Reports of workers refusing to return to work and the number of fact-finding interviews were “not readily available” labor department spokeswoman Jessica Picard said. Starting Sunday, people who do not have a job must start searching for work to continue receiving benefits. Those who are still connected to their employer, such as furloughed workers who expect to be rehired, will have to start their job searches in October.

“The lower numbers of initial claims show a stabilization of the labor market and fewer layoff events,” Picard said. “Decreases in weekly certifications filed could have a variety of factors, a large one being people returning to work.”

Researchers at Yale University recently published a preliminary study that found generous unemployment benefits did not prove to be a deterrent for people to go back to work.

Working with data from private scheduling and time clock software for hourly employees at small businesses, researchers found that workers receiving generous unemployment benefits took jobs at similar rates as those with less-generous wage replacement. They also concluded that those earning more on unemployment were not less likely to return to work.

“The data do not show a relationship between benefit generosity and employment paths after the CARES Act, which could be due to the collapse of labor demand during the COVID-19 crisis,” report co-author Joseph Altonji, the Thomas DeWitt Cuyler Professor of Economics at Yale, said in a news release on the report in late July.

Labor demand in restaurants, hospitality and retail, all high-contact occupations, has not returned to the pre-pandemic level, said Hillard, of USM. That, combined with health concerns and structural constraints such as childcare, is suppressing labor activity, he said.

The lack of more federal economic support, particularly for state and municipal governments, means the jobs picture may get worse before it gets better, Hillard said.

“We are dependent on what Washington does, and right now Washington isn’t doing anything,” he said.

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