Long Island's unemployment rate inched down to 4.4 percent in April, the lowest level for the month in seven years, state Labor Department data released Wednesday show. A year earlier the jobless rate stood at 4.6 percent.

And in a shift that some economists called a significant improvement, the number of employed Long Islanders grew for the first time since October. The Island now has 1.385 million employed residents, according to the Labor Department's household survey, up 9,900 from a year ago and the highest number for April since 2009.

Meanwhile, the number of unemployed fell by 2,900 to 63,700, the lowest for the month also in seven years.

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The report heartened some local economists because the data suggest that the improvements resulted from job growth, as opposed to "discouraged workers" dropping out of the labor force because they didn't believe they could find a job.

Discouraged workers aren't included in local unemployment statistics. So their growing ranks can produce a decline in the jobless rate even if the number of employed residents drops. And that seemed to be the case for several months on Long Island, until April's data reversed that trend.

"This one seems like pretty clear improvement," said John A. Rizzo, chief economist of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group. "The decline in the unemployment rate reflects growth in jobs."

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James Brown, the department's labor-market analyst in Manhattan, agreed.

"This is a somewhat more positive picture," Brown said. "Better . . . to see rising employment than your unemployment rate going down just because people are leaving the labor force."

Rizzo also sounded a cautionary note about the latest positive economic news.

"It's a recent result and not yet a long-term trend," he said. "But I hope it becomes one."

The recent improvements come despite department statistics released last week showing that the Island's job growth had slowed significantly last month. Those data, based on a separate survey of businesses, showed that the Island's employment market had just 8,200 more jobs in April than the year before, the lowest year-over-year increase since December.

The department uses year-over-year comparisons because local data aren't adjusted for seasonal fluctuations in employment.

Around the Island, Riverhead Town had the highest unemployment rate, at 5.3 percent. The lowest was North Hempstead Town's 3.8 percent.

On a county level, Nassau's 4.2 percent jobless rate was third lowest in the state. Suffolk ranked seventh, with a 4.6 percent rate and tied with Orange and Schenectady counties. Tompkins County, home of Cornell University, had the state's lowest, at 3.8 percent. Hamilton County had the highest -- 10 percent.

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Those data compare with the state's 5.5 percent rate last month and the nation's 5.1 percent on the same seasonally unadjusted basis.