Job seekers explore their options during Job Fair 2014 at...

Job seekers explore their options during Job Fair 2014 at the Clarion Hotel in Ronkonkoma on Jan. 14, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Long Island's unemployment rate tumbled to 5.1 percent in December, from 7.1 percent in December 2012, the state Labor Department said Tuesday. It was the biggest year-over-year drop in 2013.

December's strong year-over-year employment growth, which was reported last week, seemed to spark the steep jobless rate decline. The Island had 26,500 more jobs in December than the year before.

Two other key statistics in Tuesday's report underscored the job market's strength. The number of employed residents in December jumped by 34,400, compared with a year earlier, to 1.41 million. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed residents fell by 29,100 to 75,500.

"The fact that gains in employment are larger than declines in unemployment would suggest that people are returning to the labor force, hopefully because job prospects are better," said Shital Patel, a labor market analyst in the department's Hicksville office.

In the months following the last recession, the unemployment rate often declined despite weak job growth because many discouraged, unemployed workers stopped looking for jobs and thus weren't included in the unemployment data. But last month's plunging jobless rate amid solid job growth suggested that many workers resumed their job search and found employment.

John A. Rizzo, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, sees more job-market improvements.

"It is a continuing trend and bodes well for Long Island's job market and economy in 2014," he said.

The Island's biggest unemployment-rate drop was in Long Beach, where the rate plunged by more than half to 5.1 percent, from 10.8 percent a year earlier, when the city was still struggling to recover from superstorm Sandy damage.

Long Island's December rate was lower than New York State's 6.6 percent rate and the nation's 6.5 percent; both numbers, like the local data, are not seasonally adjusted.

The department uses year-over-year data for comparisons because local statistics aren't adjusted for monthly fluctuations.

In March the department will release January employment and unemployment data and revisions for 2013.

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