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By James B. Nelson December 21, 2015

Numbers cited by Katrina Shankland on layoffs don't tell the story

Days after Heinz Kraft announced plans to close the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, an expected  loss of about 1,000 jobs, state Assembly Democrats held a news conference to argue lawmakers should focus on job creation.

The news conference came before a session of the state Assembly called by majority Republicans to consider election and campaign finance issues. Democrats said the focus, given the bad news from Oscar Mayer and several other major employers, should be on the economy and jobs.

"We are on pace to double layoffs since 2014," declared Assistant Minority Leader Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point.)

"This is the governor's worst year of his administration in terms of layoffs," she continued. "We're well over 10,000 layoffs and the people of Wisconsin are crying out for action."

When we asked Shankland’s office for backup, an aide said Shankland was using state Department of Workforce Development data on notices of plant closings and mass layoffs.

Shankland aide Annika Petty noted the "list does not yet include the layoffs announced in early November by Oscar Mayer."

Unpacking the numbers

For 2014, the state received layoff warning notices that covered 7,239 jobs. As of Nov. 2, 2015, the tally for this year was 11,057.

So if you add in the Oscar Mayer layoff,that would bring it to about 12,050.

That’s not quite double, but two months of data remained at the time Shankland made her claim and the numbers from earlier months suggest her claim is generally on target.

But the layoff number are nowhere near as solid as Shankland suggests.

Here is how the system works:

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In Wisconsin, businesses are required to file warning notices with the state when they anticipate ending employment for more than 50 workers. Wisconsin’s law is more strict than federal law, which sets the threshold at more than 100 workers.

But some layoffs never trigger a notice, because they don’t reach the 50 person threshold. And the notices don’t always mean lost jobs. When a company changes hands, the old firm is required to file a notice, even if all the workers will retain their jobs with the new firm.

In some cases, layoffs take place immediately. In other cases -- such as with Oscar Mayer -- the plant closing is expected months later. In still others, they never take place.

So the numbers don’t represent actual layoffs. As such, experts say they are a lousy tool for assessing the state’s economy.

That’s what we found when we rated a July 2015 claim from the liberal group American Bridge 21st Century, which said Wisconsin’s economy had "tanked" under Walker and "so far in 2015 over 6,685 people have been laid off, already more than in all of 2014."

We rated the claim False.

Shankland’s claim is somewhat different, in that she does not directly cite the number as evidence of the state’s economy tanking. But she did make it at a news conference that asserted more action is needed on jobs due to poor economic performance.

Experts such as Brian Jacobsen, an economist at Wells Fargo and a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, say a far better indicator of the employment picture -- but one that’s not without it’s own flaws -- is the monthly jobs report.

Those numbers show that as of October 2015, the state added an estimated 30,300 jobs in 2015. That includes a preliminary estimate of 15,100 private sector jobs added in October alone. The number is preliminary and subject to change.

But the important point is this: Those figures are the net result of all changes, including layoffs and jobs added, not just one side of the coin.

Our rating

Shankland said Wisconsin "is on pace to double the number of layoffs this year."

She cited layoff notices received by the state. But those aren’t actual layoffs. And while she’s about right on the number of notices received, she’s wrong to suggest that the employment numbers are headed downward this year.

In the time frame she cited the state’s added about 30,300 jobs. We rate the claim False.

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Numbers cited by Katrina Shankland on layoffs don't tell the story

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