Maine has lost more jobs on a percentage basis during the pandemic than in any recession in the past 50 years, according to a recent analysis by the Maine Department of Labor.

Nearly 4,000 claims for state unemployment benefits were filed last week, the highest weekly claims total since mid-July. Another 230 claims were filed under a federal unemployment program. In total, about 4,300 people filed claims last week, the department reported Thursday.

New claims for unemployment have grown since mid-December, partially a reflection of Maine’s seasonal job cycle but also an indication of pandemic’s negative effect on the labor market.

The scale of job losses during this recession is far worse than that of any other economic recession since 1969, according to department’s analysis. More than 104,000 nonfarm payroll jobs were lost between February and April. About half of those jobs have been recovered, and some industries have bounced back fully.

But other workers, prominently in the state’s lodging, restaurant and entertainment businesses, have been displaced in huge numbers and it is uncertain when those jobs will return, or if all of them ever will.

Total nonfarm jobs in Maine remained almost 8 percent lower in November compared with the beginning of 2020. At the worst period of the Great Recession about 12 years ago, 5 percent of total jobs were lost in the state, according to the department.

“We are still, on a percentage basis, lower than at the lowest point of the Great Recession,” said Mark McInerney, director of the state’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

Thousands of jobs were recovered within months of the pandemic’s onset in Maine, but the recovery has stalled since then, McInerney added.

“Some of the job losses were characterized by places that were closed temporarily, then could reopen,” he said. “Certainly the rest are folks who have still not returned to work either because their employer never really reopened or returned to the same capacity. Or there are folks who got disconnected from the labor force because of school closures, lack of available child care or health precautions they needed to take.”

Job recovery in the hardest-hit industries, particularly in leisure and hospitality, may have reached its peak until pandemic conditions change, McInerney said. There are 18,000 fewer jobs in that industry compared with before the pandemic.

When people feel safer going out eating and drinking together, it will likely spark a better job recovery in those industries, but it is unclear when that will be, or how the pandemic will permanently alter consumer behavior.

“What is happening in Maine is really similar to what is happening nationally,” McInerney said. “We are in a period of much slower recovery. My sense is that this is where the economy is going to be for some time until there are some changes in the public health situation.”

Economic sectors that took the biggest job hits since February include leisure and hospitality with a 36 percent decrease in employment, health care and social assistance with a 14 percent decline, manufacturing with a 9 percent decrease, and private education with a 7 percent drop. Those four sectors account for two-thirds of all the jobs lost in the state, according to the Labor Department.

Restaurants and hotels are unlikely to quickly recover from the job losses experienced last spring, said Steve Hewins, president of the HospitalityMaine trade group. Right now, many employers are hanging on thanks to financial support from state grants and the possibility of more federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.

But some locations are scaling back operations, cutting staff or going into hibernation over the winter in an attempt to make it through to a busier spring and summer.

The hospitality job market “is tanking again,” Hewins said. “People are being laid off, businesses are continuing to close, especially restaurants.”

Hewins said there is “light at the end of the tunnel,” but the industry is not expecting to see any kind of recovery until late spring or early summer, with the return of guests in significant numbers. And a successful tourism season will depend on getting the virus under control and a successful vaccination campaign in Maine and elsewhere.

“They are not coming unless they feel safe,” Hewins said. “We can bounce back fast. I think we will, but it is going to take that factor of people feeling safe and operating safely and people doing everything they can to be marketable, not just to people out of state but to people here.”

About 40,600 claims for continued unemployment benefits were filed in Maine last week. The state has started paying a $300-per-week federal benefit approved in a COVID-19 economic relief bill last month.


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