A customer walks behind a sign at a Nordstrom store seeking employees May 21 in Coral Gables, Fla. Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Despite ticking upward slightly in Maine, claims for unemployment benefits fell last week for the sixth straight week across the country as the U.S. economy, held back for months by the coronavirus pandemic, reopens rapidly.

Nationally, jobless claims fell by 9,000 to 376,000 from 385,000 the week before, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The number of people signing up for benefits exceeded 900,000 in early January and has fallen more or less steadily ever since. Still, claims are high by historic standards. Before the pandemic brought economic activity to a near-standstill in March 2020, weekly applications were regularly coming in below 220,000.

Nearly 3.5 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits the week of May 29, down by 258,000 from 3.8 million the week before.

In Maine, initial claims for state and federal jobless benefits increased to 1,600 last week from 1,500 the previous week. Initial state claims were higher in Maine than during late summer 2020, which reached a pandemic low of about 1,100 state claims during the week ending Aug. 8.

Continuing weekly claims continued to decline in Maine, falling by about 800 claims to 38,200 last week.

Businesses are reopening rapidly as the rollout of vaccines allows Americans to feel more comfortable returning to restaurants, bars and shops. The Labor Department reported Tuesday that job openings hit a record 9.3 million in April. Layoffs dropped to 1.4 million, lowest in records dating back to 2000; 4 million quit their jobs in April, another record and a sign that they are confident enough in their prospects to try something new.

“As life normalizes and the service sector continues to gain momentum, we expect initial jobless claims to continue to trend lower,″ said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at the economic and financial consulting firm Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc.

In May, the U.S. economy generated 559,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate dropped to 5.8 percent from 6.1 percent in April. Many economists expected to see even faster job growth. The United States is still short 7.6 million jobs from where it stood in February 2020.

But employers are posting vacancies faster than would-be applicants can fill them. Many Americans are contending with health and child care issues related to COVID-19 and with career uncertainty after the coronavirus recession wiped out many jobs for good. Some are taking their time looking for work because expanded federal jobless benefits pay more than their old jobs.

Many states are scheduled to begin dropping the federal benefits this month. Altogether, 15.3 million people were receiving some type of jobless aid the week of May 22; a year earlier, the number exceeded 30 million.

Correction: This story was updated at 6:44 a.m. On June 11, 2021 to correct the number of new jobs created in May.

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