A state-funded bonus program to encourage jobless Mainers to get back into the workforce will end after reaching a fraction of the people officials estimated it could.

Gov. Janet Mills in June offered some workers collecting unemployment a $1,500 payment if they took one of thousands of open jobs in the state and held it for at least two months. As of last week, more than 32,000 Mainers remained on continuing federal and/or state weekly jobless benefits, up from about 4,100 during the same week of 2019.

The program ran through late July but attracted just 400 people. When it was launched, the Maine Department of Labor estimated the $10 million program could reach 7,500 workers. Half of the 400 workers, hired by a total of 386 different companies, work in social assistance, retail stores or hotels and restaurants.

“Maine, like all states, is confronting a workforce shortage worsened by the pandemic, and we are pleased we were able to provide this tool alongside our other efforts to help get people back to work,” said state Community Development Commissioner Heather Johnson in a news release. “We remain committed to finding solutions to the barriers that remain to families returning work.”

A deadline for employers to submit grant applications for new employees hired between June 15 and July 25 has been extended by two weeks to Aug. 20, the department said Wednesday. Grants are not available to those hired after the July 25 cutoff.

“We hope this two-week applications deadline extension will give businesses more time to get any lingering applications in so we can maximize the help we are able to provide,” said Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman in a statement.

Hiring bonuses were only available to workers claiming unemployment benefits who were hired for jobs paying less than $25 an hour and who stayed in the job for at least eight consecutive weeks. New employees were not required to complete the full eight weeks on the job before the employer could apply for the bonus, the news release said, but employers will have to show through payroll records that new hires are eligible before the bonus is released.

As the state’s economy rebounds from the COVID-19 recession, Maine employers have struggled to attract enough workers, especially in typically low-wage jobs in restaurants, hotels, retail and other public-facing businesses.

Tens of thousands of people were laid off in the early days of the pandemic, and some have not returned to jobs, either staying on extended unemployment or dropping out of the workforce entirely. Issues such as health concerns, remote and hybrid schooling and inaccessible childcare have kept some workers on the sidelines, and some foreign workers that seasonal businesses depend on were prevented from entering the U.S. this year.

Those dynamics further tightened the state’s labor market, which strained to find enough workers to fill open jobs for years before the pandemic.

About 3,000 new jobs were created in June, but Maine’s unemployment rate stayed steady at 4.8 percent and the labor force participation rate, which counts the people who are employed or actively looking for a job, remained around 60 percent, more than two points below pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, the number of people claiming unemployment insurance has steadily declined. In the last week of July, there were about 8,200 continued claims for state jobless benefits, 2,000 fewer than two months before. The number of continuing unemployment claims is now roughly the same as levels seen in a typical January, after layoffs of seasonal holiday workers.

However, about 24,250 claims were made for federal unemployment programs that cover workers ineligible for state benefits and extend aid for up to a full year. Those programs, as well as a $300-per-week increased unemployment payment, will end permanently in less than a month.

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