WASHINGTON — The number of new applications nationwide for unemployment benefits fell to a pandemic low last week, another sign that the job market and economy continue to recover from last year’s coronavirus recession. In Maine, initial claims increased slightly from the prior week.

Jobless claims dropped by 10,000 to 281,000, their lowest since mid-March 2020, the U.S. Labor Department said Thursday. Since topping 900,000 in early January, weekly applications have steadily dropped, moving ever closer to pre-pandemic levels just above 200,000.

In all, 2.2 million people were collecting unemployment checks the week of Oct. 16, down from 7.7 million a year earlier.

In Maine, initial claims filed for jobless benefits increased to 760 last week from a pandemic low of 650 the previous week, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

In addition to roughly 700 claims for state benefits, about 60 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 4,510 in Maine from about 4,850 claims the previous week, as participation in federal aid programs continued to wind down. About 4,500 continuing claims were filed for state benefits, and the remaining 10 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 3,300 out of the 4,500 continuing state claims filed.

The pandemic slammed the economy in the spring of 2020. In March and April last year, employers slashed more than 22 million jobs as businesses closed or reduced hours in response to lockdowns and consumers staying home as a health precaution.

The economy recovered with unexpected speed, helped by the rollout of vaccines and generous government relief checks and other spending. By last month, the economy had reclaimed more than 17 million of the lost jobs. But that was still 5 million short of where the labor market stood in February 2020.

And hiring slowed sharply last month – to just 194,000 new jobs after averaging a 607,000 a month the first eight months of the year. That is partly because companies can’t find enough people to fill their job openings – 10.4 million in August, second-highest in records going back to 2000.

Many Americans have retired. Others are still wary of the health outlook or struggling with daycare issues. Still others are rethinking their lives and careers after spending months locked down at home.

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