WASHINGTON — The number of claims filed nationwide for unemployment benefits fell to its lowest level since the pandemic began, a sign the job market is still improving even as hiring has slowed in the past two months. In Maine, seasonal layoffs were the likely cause of an increase in new claims from a week earlier.

Nationally, unemployment claims dropped 36,000 to 293,000 last week, the second straight drop, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the smallest number of people to apply for benefits since March 2020, when the pandemic intensified. Applications for jobless aid, which generally track the pace of layoffs, have fallen steadily since last spring as many businesses, struggling to fill jobs, have held onto their workers.

Roughly 950 Mainers filed initial claims for jobless benefits or reopened a prior claim, up from 750 the previous week, according to the state Department of Labor. The department said claims typically rise in October as a result of seasonal layoffs.

In addition to roughly 800 claims for state benefits, about 100 new claims for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance were filed by Mainers last week. Those claims were retroactive to before the federal program ended in September.

Continuing weekly claims, an indicator of prolonged unemployment, fell to 5,550 in Maine from about 6,050 claims the previous week, as participation in federal aid programs continued to wind down. About 5,400 continuing claims were filed for state benefits, and the remaining 150 were for federal benefits.

The state labor department noted that not all claims are validated and paid. For example, last week the department only approved 3,800 out of the more than 6,000 continuing claims filed.

Hiring has slowed in the past two months, even as companies and other employers have posted a near-record number of open jobs. Businesses are struggling to find workers as about three million people who lost jobs and stopped looking for work since the pandemic have yet to resume their job searches. Economists hoped more people would find work in September as schools reopened, easing child care constraints, and enhanced unemployment aid ended nationwide.

But the pickup didn’t happen, with employers adding just 194,000 jobs last month. In a bright spot, the unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent, though some of that decline occurred because many of those out of work stopped searching for jobs and were no longer counted as unemployed.

At the same time, Americans are quitting their jobs in record numbers, with about 3 percent of workers doing so in August. Workers have been particularly likely to leave their jobs at restaurants, bars and hotels, possibly spurred by fear of the delta variant of COVID-19, which was still spreading rapidly in August.

Other workers likely quit to take advantage of higher wages offered by businesses with open positions, or left jobs because child care for children too young to go to school has been harder to find.

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