Mass layoffs trending up, number of employed moving down
MADISON — While Wisconsin businesses remain mostly upbeat, uncertainty in the Evers economy appears to be doing some damage. The Badger State is on pace to record nearly 12,000 mass layoffs, which would be the highest number of such job losses over the past decade. And the number of employed declined by 8,142 workers between January and July, according to the most recent data available from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Concern about the policies and regulations being pushed by Democrat Gov. Tony Evers’ administration is rising in the business community, economy watchers say. Evers’ first budget proposal included capping the state’s popular manufacturing and agricultural tax credit, and his administration has outlined stringent environmental regulations. Such grow-government initiatives have had a chilling effect on some business development, economic experts say. “I think that feeds into the broader uncertainty,” said Noah Williams, founding director of the Center for Research On the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) and Juli Plant Grainger professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s quite a bit of uncertainty, generally speaking, in this economy right now.” “It’s true the new era of divided government has certainly increased uncertainty, even though, so far, not much has changed,” Williams said of Democrats controlling the executive branch and Republicans leading the Legislature. While Republicans rejected Evers’ tax increase on manufacturers, the governor’s support of a significantly higher minimum wage and his drive to beef up regulations on business play into that uncertainty, Williams added. The most recent Marquette University Law School Poll, issued last week, notes sentiment shifting. A solid majority of Wisconsin registered voters surveyed held a positive view of the economy over the past year, but more had misgivings about the future. “By contrast, the outlook for the next year is not net positive, with 26 percent saying the economy will improve, while 37 percent think it will get worse and 33 percent saying the economy will remain the same,” states a poll press release. In the main, confidence remains high on Main Street, according to Bill Williams, Wisconsin state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. But there is growing frustration that the Evers administration has been slow to respond to questions about regulations imposed on small business. A state board created to review regulatory impacts has failed to meet this year. The webpage for the Wisconsin Small Business Regulatory Review Board notes a meeting is TBA. “Our small businesses are concerned the current administration has taken its eye off the target here,” Smith said. There are some troubling signs in the Evers economy, some of which could speak Evers’ agenda. Mass layoffs up Employers had notified the state of at leat 7,195 layoffs through the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, Act through the the first part of August. Employers preparing to close plants or planning significant job losses are required to notify DWD, which posts the WARN notices on its website. The final counts are subject to change. Wisconsin’s economy is on pace to record 11,925 layoffs through WARN notices alone, which would top the high water mark of 9,630 such layoffs posted in 2015. Evers’ predecessor, Republican Scott Walker, was in his second term as governor at the time. DWD recorded 8,423 total displaced workers from mass layoff events last year, Walker’s final year in office. “We have definitely been in a slowdown in the labor market,” UW economist Williams said. “The biggest concerns I have are in the labor numbers. Employment has been roughly flat since the beginning of the year, and it has been down in recent months, largely driven by manufacturing,” Williams said. Manufacturing has seen a resurgence in recent years, helping drive Wisconsin’s torrid economy and pushing up household income. In July 2018, Wisconsin ranked 5th nationally in percentage growth in the manufacturing sector, and 2nd in the Midwest, between July 2017 and July 2018, according to DWD. The economic heat has cooled a bit since then. Manufacturing-related indicators in Wisconsin’s most populated region have weakened in recent months, according to the most recent economic trends report from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. And hours and earnings indicators for manufacturing production workers are trending downward, the report notes. Evers’ team noted the continued growth in the U.S. and Badger State economy, pointing to the federal tax cuts of late 2017 helping fuel the longest national economic expansion on record. “The forecast expects this trend to continue in 2019 at a slightly slower pace, as the housing market decelerates and the boost from the federal tax cuts fade away,” the Department of Revenue predicted in its economic outlook, issued in March. Evers’ economists cite the trade wars as among the risks and factors for slowing economic growth. But the WARN mass layoff numbers were rising and on pace to top 10,000 before talk of dramatic economic downturns, even a looming recession, bombarded the news cycle in late July and August. Mass layoffs announced in several Midwest states during the same period were considerably lower than Wisconsin’s numbers, according to WARN comparisons. Minnesota posted nearly 2,000 fewer, Iowa recorded some 3,800 less, and Indiana more than 4,000 fewer layoffs. Michigan’s state workforce agency reported 6,847 layoffs under the WARN Act, on par with Wisconsin. Illinois was slightly higher, at 7,199 mass layoffs, according to state data. The mass layoffs are only a partial count of the total unemployed. While governors have only so much influence on their state’s economic output, at least politically speaking, this is now “Evers’ economy,” as it was “Walker’s economy” for the eight years he led the state. The mainstream press was quick to report when Wisconsin’s workforce figures under Walker lagged the nation and many of the Badger State’s Midwest neighbors. The same press has been reluctant, thus far, to do the same kind of reporting on Evers’ workforce efforts.