New claims filed for state unemployment benefits last week hit their highest volume in five months, reflecting seasonal job trends and the economic consequences of a worsening pandemic in Maine.

Almost 3,000 initial claims for state unemployment insurance were made in the week ending Dec. 5, a nearly 60 percent increase from the previous week, the Maine Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Another 1,200 claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program. Many of those claims were made by people who had exhausted their extended state and federal unemployment benefits, the department said. Those Mainers were counted as having filed initial claims last week even though they had been receiving benefits for months.

Overall, an estimated 3,700 people filed an initial claim or reopened a previous claim last week, the department said.

The number of new claims for state unemployment benefits hit the highest point since the week ending July 11, according to state records. The four-week average of new claims last week was the highest since early August.

Seasonal variations in Maine’s labor market help explain some of the increase. New unemployment claims typically increase in late autumn and early winter, said labor department spokeswoman Jessica Picard.

“Seasonally, Maine traditionally sees an increase in initial claims from layoffs in construction, which is impacted by the colder weather, and retail trade, lodging and eating and drinking places, which generally close after the fall tourism season has ended,” Picard said.

In the past five years, initial claims have ticked up from a few hundred a week to about 1,000 to 1,800 a week throughout December, she added.

“This increase in initial claims is similar to typical seasonal patterns that we see each year,” Picard said. “Initial claims normally increase over the coming weeks until mid- to late January, and then trend down.”

COVID-19’s continued impact on the state’s economy and labor market likely played a role in the elevated layoffs, as well. The four-week average of initial state unemployment claims was 2,290 last week, more than double the same period last year.

Nationally, the number of unemployment aid claims jumped last week to 853,000, the most since September, evidence that companies are cutting more jobs as new virus cases spiral higher, The Associated Press reported.

The U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday that the number of applications increased from 716,000 the previous week, the AP said. Before the coronavirus paralyzed the economy in March, weekly jobless claims typically numbered only about 225,000.

Tens of thousands of continued claims are filed weekly in Maine, many for federal programs open to those typically not covered by state programs or those who have exhausted state benefits.

Those federal programs, created by the CARES Act in March, will expire on Dec. 26 unless Congress renews or replaces them. So far, Congress and the White House have not come to an agreement for new relief to unemployed Americans.

In the absence of a relief bill, Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday announced a one-time, $600 payment to those unemployed or underemployed because of the pandemic. The labor department estimates 42,000 people may be eligible for the payment.

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