Long Island's unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent in January from 7.7 percent a year ago, the state Labor Department said Tuesday.
January's drop continued a trend of falling rates that the local job market saw throughout 2013.
"We are definitely seeing sustained improvement in the unemployment rate," said Shital Patel, a labor market analyst in the department's Hicksville office.
But the latest rate is higher than in recent months. For example, December's unemployment rate declined to 5.1 percent from 7.1 percent a year earlier.
The January rate, however, had to claw its way down from 7.7 percent in January 2013, a level that was elevated in part because of superstorm Sandy's damage to the labor market, Patel said.
The department uses year-over-year comparisons because the local data aren't adjusted to reflect seasonal swings in employment.
While the latest rate decline came amid strong job growth -- last week the department said that Long Island had 17,500 more jobs in January than a year earlier -- the data also suggest that factors unrelated to job growth could be at play.
The number of employed Long Island residents rose by 18,000 to 1.386 million in January. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed people plummeted by a much greater amount, dropping 26,500 to a total of 87,000. That big drop could suggest that retirees and discouraged workers are leaving the workforce, which shrinks the official count of unemployed residents, Patel said.
Despite improvements, the number of unemployed residents is still substantially above the 61,700 recorded in January 2007. Likewise, the number of employed is still considerably below 2007's level of 1.413 million.
The quality of jobs being added continues to concern local economists. In January, lower-wage sectors like retail and food services grew the fastest.
"I am tempted to believe this drop in the unemployment rate for Long Island is real," said Irwin Kellner, the Port Washington-based chief economist for MarketWatch.com, a financial news website. "But of course it doesn't tell you what kinds of jobs are being created."
North Babylon resident Christina Paxton lost her job as a store manager at a small convenience store chain in May, after 26 years. Many employers are offering only part-time work, the 49-year-old said.
"I think the jobs are out there," she said. "It's just that they are all low-paying. You just can't survive on that."