WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying initial claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to a new low point since the pandemic erupted, evidence that layoffs are declining as companies hold on to workers. Maine experienced a similar pandemic low.

U.S. jobless claims dropped 6,000 to 290,000 last week, the third straight drop, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the fewest people to apply for benefits since March 14, 2020, when the pandemic intensified. Applications for jobless aid, which generally track the pace of layoffs, have fallen steadily from about 900,000 in January.

In Maine, initial claims filed for jobless benefits fell to a pandemic low of 650 last week from 900 the previous week, according to the Maine Department of Labor. Roughly 700 Mainers filed an initial claim or reopened a prior claim.

In addition to roughly 600 claims for state benefits, about 50 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 4,850 in Maine from about 5,550 claims the previous week, as participation in federal aid programs continued to wind down. About 4,800 continuing claims were filed for state benefits, and the remaining 50 were for federal benefits.

The Maine Labor Department noted that not all claims are validated and paid. For example, last week the department approved only 3,400 out of the 4,800 continuing state claims filed.

Unemployment claims in the U.S. are increasingly returning to normal, but many other aspects of the job market haven’t yet done so. Hiring has slowed in the past two months, even as companies and other employers have posted a near-record number of open jobs. Officials such as Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell had hoped more people would find work in September as schools reopened, easing child care constraints, and enhanced unemployment aid ended nationwide.

Yet so far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, some observers are starting to consider whether some of those who had jobs before the pandemic, and lost them, may have permanently stopped looking for work.

On Tuesday, Christopher Waller, a member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, said that 2 million of the 22 million jobs lost to the pandemic may not return anytime soon because retirements have accelerated so quickly since COVID-19 hit.

The U.S. Labor Department’s report Thursday also showed that the number of people receiving jobless aid continues to fall steadily. In the week of Oct. 2, the latest data available, 3.3 million people received unemployment benefits, down from 3.6 million in the previous week.

A year ago, nearly 24 million people were getting unemployment aid.

About 7 million people lost jobless benefits in September after two emergency programs, set up in March 2020, expired. One of the programs provided aid to gig workers and the self-employed, who traditionally are not eligible to receive unemployment insurance, and the second covered workers who have been unemployed for longer than six months. And an extra $300 a week in federal unemployment benefits expired nationwide Sept. 6.


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