Why are controversial jobs numbers so moldy?

Jim Spaeth, one of Serigraph’s accountants brought our quarterly report for unemployment insurance (UI) to my office Monday, and he showed me he had filed our first quarter report with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) on April 26, four days before the end-of-month deadline of April 30.

More than 150,000 employers in Wisconsin faces the same deadline.

So, the question arises: why don’t we have a Wisconsin jobs report out there for Q1? It’s been two weeks since the department had that data. I assume they have a computer that can add up the numbers in the reports from employers. So what’s the hold-up?

In the past, the federal government has prayed over the numbers, which slowed their release by a couple of quarters. Why? This is state gathered data. Why wait for the feds?

It is also all-important data. The American Dream is now a good job, so all public policy on economic development revolves around job creation, as it should. Policy makers need to jobs information in real time, not quarters down the road.

In the political arena, job creation has become THE issue in the Wisconsin recall elections coming up in 2½ weeks. The union crippling Act 10 was supposed to be THE issue, but it’s not a winner for either side, so jobs resurfaced as THE issue.

Our monthly report from Serigraph couldn’t be more clear. We reported 418 employees for the payroll period that included March 12, including several part-timers.
We are at a stiff 9.8% UI tax rate on the first $13,000 of income for each employee, a rate jacked up to pay off a mountain of UI debt to the feds. That’s results in a UI tax $402,000 for the quarter, a bigger burden than our state corporate income tax.

This heavy hit means that, if anything, employers would under-report rather than over-report their jobs totals. Our report to DWD is accompanied by a DVD that contains the name and salary of every single employee. That is required so the department can audit if they choose.

In short, the UI numbers are hard core numbers. It’s bed rock data.

The whole political brouhaha in the state has been over a monthly survey conducted by the federal Department of Labor (DOL). For years, the less reliable survey numbers generally tracked pretty well with the UI census – until mid-year 2011. For Q3 2011, the DOL survey showed a job loss of 8500 in the state. When the real numbers came out recently from the UI census, Q3 showed a gain of 8786.

Of course, that variance was lost in the political dust, but it does show that something has gone kaflooey with the DOL survey. As one economist said, “Put a box of salt on the survey numbers.”

Gov. Walker’s people finally unearthed the Q4 UI numbers, and they reversed the jobs picture. Instead of losing jobs, the state is gaining jobs. That squares with every other economic metric, such as a falling unemployment rate, lower unemployment claims, rising state tax revenues, rising personal incomes, Manpower surveys that show a pattern of increased hiring and an uptick in housing and auto sales.

Of course, the timing for the Q4 numbers was political. But it is also good policy to have the the freshest, cleanest numbers to work with. So, again, why haven’t the Q1 2012 numbers been made public? DWD has had them for two weeks. Someone should get fired if they aren’t released in the next week or so.

The larger sample from the UI census also has the advantage of being a richer report. Unlike the monthly survey, the UI numbers could be broken down accurately by metro area or county. Regional economic development agencies need those numbers.

The public has a right to know how the state and its regions are doing on jobs in the timeliest manner – up or down, politics aside.

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