Long Island's May unemployment rate dropped to 4.9 percent from 6.1 percent a year ago, the state Labor Department said Tuesday. It was the lowest jobless rate for the month in six years.
But data in the report suggest that the decline was partly due to people dropping out of the workforce. The number of unemployed residents plunged by 18,200, to 72,400, year over year. But the number of employed residents rose by just 2,000 to a total of 1.4 million.
People who give up looking for work because they don't believe they can find a job aren't counted in the data as unemployed. "It's good that we are still below 5 percent for unemployment," said Shital Patel, labor market analyst in the department's Hicksville office. But "the improvement this month . . . was due in part to people dropping out of the labor force."
Because of the discouraged worker factor, some economists believe the jobless rate is less relevant for gauging the strength of the recovery than are such things as employment, wages or hours worked.
"If you look only at the unemployment rate it appears that the economy has come back," said Martin Melkonian, associate professor of economics at Hofstra University. "But if you look at these broader measures, there is still a long way to go before we can call this a true recovery."
Even with the Island posting only modest employment gains last month, the number of residents with jobs was the highest for May since 2008, when 1.42 million people were employed.
Last week the department reported that the Island had 12,200 more jobs in May than the year before, not robust growth but the fastest pace since February. That report was based on a survey of businesses. The data released Tuesday are based on a Census survey of Long Island households.
North Hempstead Town had the lowest unemployment rate -- 4.2 percent. Hempstead Village's 6.1 percent was the highest.
On a county level, Nassau's 4.8 percent tied it with Columbia and Rockland counties for the fourth-lowest rate in the state. Suffolk's 5 percent tied it with Albany and Genesee for the fifth lowest. Tompkins County, home of Cornell University, had the lowest rate, 4.1 percent.
Long Island's overall 4.9 percent rate was lower than the 7.7 percent rate for New York City and the state's 6.4 percent. But the Island's rate is still considerably above the 3.5 percent posted in May 2007, seven months before the recession began.
Because local data aren't adjusted to reflect seasonal swings in employment, the department focuses on year-over-year changes in the unemployment rate.