NEW YORK — Recently released economic data show that apparel manufacturing employment in this city has plummeted 19.9 percent over the past year, greatly outpacing the citywide job loss rate of 1.7 percent.

According to the New York State Department of Labor, at the end of March, the city’s apparel-manufacturing payroll stood at 33,100, down from 41,300 a year earlier. That’s well off from the 48,600 workers employed by the industry in August 2001, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Nationwide, apparel employment for the year ended March was off 4.7 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. As reported, in April, the industry payroll fell to 495,000 — the first time it’s been below the half-million mark.

The city industry’s rate of decline also is sharper than the 15 percent rate of job loss seen in the 12-month period immediately following Sept. 11, 2001. That was a period of heavy job loss for Chinatown, largely because large swaths of the neighborhood were cordoned off for weeks after the attack, forcing as many as half the area’s garment contractors to shut their doors.

Through the Nineties, the rate of decline was typically in the mid-single-digit percentage ranges, and never exceeded 9 percent.

Barbara Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, said what’s particularly striking about the recent acceleration in the rate of decline is that “it didn’t seem there was any one thing that provoked a sudden sharp drop.”

She blamed the weak city economy, which has prompted layoffs in many other industries, and global economic pressures that are driving manufacturing out of the U.S.

She said those forces seem all but unstoppable. That realization is one reason the FCBID has recommended that the city drop the special-zoning requirement that half the space in side-street Garment District buildings be set aside for manufacturing.

“That’s the direction the world is going,” she said. “For New York, what’s critical is that you keep the creative community, the design and sales aspects.”

Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, contended that it is important for New York to retain manufacturing jobs if it wants to keep its role as a fashion center.“If New York is to survive as the fashion capital of the world, it needs to be much more protective of the industry than it has,” he said. He said the “crisis” the manufacturing sector has been facing for some time has been exacerbated by the weak economy.

Teddy Lai, executive director of the Greater Blouse, Skirt and Undergarment Association, a Chinatown contractors’ group, said actual industry employment may not be as low as indicated by state statistics. “Some of them may not be recorded,” he said. “Some [workers] may be illegal.”

While he acknowledged that as many as one-third of the state’s garment factories have closed over the past few years, he contended that lately, Chinatown contractors have had a hard time recruiting as many workers as they have needed. That, he said, is because workers who were given training in English and other job skills, as a result of Federal relief funds for those affected by the Sept. 11 attacks, are now trying to get jobs outside the industry.

“A lot of the garment workers took advantage of that,” Lai said.

While city apparel manufacturing saw the biggest percentage drop in employment for the year ended March 31, it was by no means the only sector to experience declines. Department store employment was off 10.4 percent to 16,300, though the overall retail sector saw its payroll rise 0.3 percent to 262,400.

Other big losers were the hard-hit telecommunications sector, which saw its workforce fall 19.5 percent to 27,300, and the motion picture and video industries, which saw employment fall 18.7 percent to 29,100.

The city apparel-manufacturing workforce has been in decline for decades, but the rate of decline has accelerated sharply over the past two years. In March 1993, the industry payroll stood at 80,500.

Statewide, apparel-manufacturing employment was off 15.7 percent to 39,800.

The total city payroll stood at 3.5 million, while total state employment was 8.3 million, off 0.8 percent.

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