Bruna Tembelis, owner of AquaBrasil Boutique in Glen Head, sweeps...

Bruna Tembelis, owner of AquaBrasil Boutique in Glen Head, sweeps leaves from her store. Employers still face challenges ahead, an economist says. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

New jobless claims on Long Island last week fell below 5,000 for the first time since the pandemic began, state data released Thursday show.

Initial unemployment claims fell by 1,100, or 19%, to 4,646 claims last week from the 5,746 claims reported two weeks ago, Labor Department data show. The big drop follows a pattern of smaller week-to-week fluctuations that has generally pointed to a downward trend since the worst of the pandemic earlier this year.

But it’s not clear if last week's lower number of new claims is due to an improvement in the Island’s employment picture, or simply reflective of a landscape in which struggling employers have already closed or have let go of the employees they can afford to operate without.

"There aren’t that many more firms that have thrown in the towel," said John A. Rizzo, chief economist for the Long Island Association business group. "Businesses have had seven months now to lay people off."

The new lower number is "a positive result and it could mean that the unemployment situation is improving. But I don’t think so," Rizzo said. Nearly 150,000 Long Islanders were collecting unemployment in September, state figures show.

While it’s unclear which direction jobless claims will go from here, claims are down dramatically from where they stood earlier in the crisis. In April, new jobless claims on the Island hit a record high of more than 59,000 claims in a single week.

Although recent claims are well below that high-water mark, they are still stubbornly high compared to historic data. During the same week in 2019, claims hit only 1,387.

Claims on a national level also saw a decline last week, falling to 787,000 from 842,000 filed the previous week. While an improvement, the number of new jobless filings is more than three times the level of claims seen nationally before the health crisis.

As claims across the Island, state and country remain high, Long Islanders on unemployment are still waiting on Congress to reach a deal on supplemental unemployment dollars they say are desperately needed. Previous federal aid, including an extra $600 a week that ended in July, and an extra $300 a week from the FEMA-backed Lost Wages Assistance program that ended early last month, has not been renewed.

The state said it had distributed $3.9 billion in LWA payments to nearly 2.5 million New Yorkers, covering the six weeks of the limited FEMA program.

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