October 24, 2013    Volume 20, No. 14

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The Country Will No Longer Know About Mass Layoffs

By Richard A. McCormack

After decades of economic embarrassment caused by the federal government reporting on millions of working Americans being laid off in mass firings, the U.S. government has finally killed the statistical program that tracked those layoffs.

The Mass Layoff Statistics (MLS) program at the Bureau of Labor Statistics produced its last report in June and closed its doors and turned out the lights. The Obama administration decided the program was not worth it, given that the BLS had to cut its budget due to "sequestration," and there were other data priorities.

The program was previously killed during the Bush administration in December 2002, when outsourcing started to become a contentious issue and was defended by Bush's top economists. Closing the program led to a public outcry and the temporary loss of 14 people at BLS who were crunching the numbers. There were 75 people supplying data from 50 states. The program was re-funded by Congress in the spring of 2003 at the insistence of Sen. Ted Kennedy who thought it was important for the country to keep abreast of mass firings. No such congressional savior awaits the program this time.

"For the BLS to eliminate the Green Jobs and Mass Layoff data programs, it's feeding into the notion that you don't have to do the things that Republicans don't like," says William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO. "It seems like a sop to me to say: 'We'll keep the things that everyone thinks are important, but the things the Republicans don't like, we will cut them," he adds. "They don't want to know that x number of firms moved offshore and took away thousands of American jobs. Now there is no way to know it."

When asked if the BLS killed the Mass Layoff Statistics program to placate criticism from congressional Republicans and large multinational corporations that outsource jobs to foreign locations, BLS spokesman Gary Steinberg replied via e-mail: "The data collected on movement of work by the MLS program never showed that the relocation of work outside the U.S. was a large element of reported extended mass layoffs. Of those extended mass layoffs that did involve movement of work, most were domestic relocations."

According to MLS data, since 2000, there have been 85,049 mass layoff events in the United States involving more than 50 employees. A total of 15,962,800 Americans have lost their jobs over that time in mass layoff events, the majority of which occurred in the manufacturing sector.

The Mass Layoff Statistics program provided analysts with data on the regions of the country and industries under economic duress and competitive assault. The program identified the reasons workers were being dislocated in mass firings along with the human and economic costs associated with those mass layoffs. It provided the gender, age, race and residency of the workers being fired in mass layoff events. And it provided local economic development officials with information on the types of workers that were recently unemployed and whether or not they were expected to be recalled by their companies.

The program's quarterly data series described the hollowing out of the U.S. manufacturing sector -- and thus the American economy -- especially the high-tech computer, information technology and consumer electronics manufacturing industries that have virtually disappeared from the United States. "Everyone has been convinced that those are really important industries, but Americans en masse are losing those jobs and with the loss of human capital the country has no ability to ramp those industries back up because we have depleted the people who know how to do it," says Spriggs. "The idea that we would farm out the core industries for national security is just mind boggling. If you don't make computers in this age you are going to last two months in a war."

But the mass layoff series also chronicled the loss of other industries: furniture; textiles and apparel; appliances; wood products, paper and cardboard; iron and steel; foundry and finished metals; electrical products, generators and industrial goods and machinery; machine tools; plastics and rubber; chemicals; food; transportation equipment; semiconductors; telecommunications equipment; business machinery; pharmaceuticals; hospital supplies and equipment; footwear; and sporting goods and toys.

Nobody seems to have protested the demise of the mass layoff statistical series, according to BLS spokesman Steinberg. BLS "received only two or three emails expressing surprise or displeasure with the program closure," he said. "There was extensive public notification of the planned shutdown with repeated mentions in the MLS press releases as well as on the MLS and BLS web pages."

When Manufacturing & Technology News initially called BLS to comment on the reasons for the closure of the data series, a spokesman said: "You are the first reporter to ask specifics about the program."

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