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444,000 Americans filed new claims for unemployment in regular state programs for the week, the Labor Department reported today. That’s the third consecutive weekly decline in initial claims for unemployment. New claims in regular state programs are now at the lowest level since the middle of March 2020. Last year at this time weekly new claims for unemployment in regular state programs hit 2.3 million.

States reported more than 95 million initial claims for unemployment through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for gig and self-employed workers for the week that ended May 15. Benefits for nearly 6.6 million current continuing claims under the program are set to expire in September.

Continuing unemployment claims in regular state programs edged up 111,000 from the previous week to 3.75 million.

The total number of Americans drawing some form of unemployment benefits is nearly 16 million, near historic highs.

Today’s report comes a 22 Republican-led states say they will opt out of expanded unemployment benefits, which they argue are discouraging people from returning to the labor market. The temporary $300 weekly benefit from the federal government is slated to expire in September, but Republican-led states such as Texas, Arizona and Ohio plan to cut it off in June.

Democrats have pushed back on the Republican benefit cuts arguing that unaffordable child care, unsafe working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic, low wages, and a hesitancy over resuming in-person work are the reasons that some companies are reporting difficulties in finding workers. In that context some corporate solutions seem like a bad joke. Applebee’s, for example is offering free appetizers to job applicants. About 44% of small businesses had job openings they couldn’t fill in April, a record high according to the National Federation of Independent Business.