Coal Tattoo

Fact check: Sorting out the coal jobs rhetoric

We’ve been writing in the Gazette and on this blog for more than a year now to try to explain what’s happened under the Obama administration regarding coal jobs here in West Virginia and across the Appalachian region (see here, here, here and here, just for example).

Despite our efforts, the rhetoric about coal-job losses continues, with some candidates, media personalities, and political leaders throwing around some interesting figures.

For example, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney has gone as far as saying that “upwards of 3,000 jobs have been lost this year alone” in West Virginia. Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews has used the same figure. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has used a figure of “over 2,000” jobs lost.

We’ve tried to rely at the Gazette on the latest U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration quarterly figures, believing that they are the most accurate and up-t0-date numbers available that show the full coal employment picture — taking into account both job losses from layoffs and mine closures, and jobs added elsewhere in the coal industry.

But as the State Journal’s great energy reporter Pam Kasey explained recently, that’s not the way officials from the West Virginia Department of Commerce want to play. In a story headlined Rhetoric escalating in coal mine layoff numbers, Pam pointed out in a brilliantly subtle way that the state agency is really misleading the public here. How? Here’s what the wrote:

As announcements of coal mine layoffs small and large pile up this election season, the rhetoric is piling even higher.

References have appeared recently to “more than 2,000” and “more than 2,500” coal-industry layoffs in the state in 2012 — often with overt blaming of Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and President Obama — and last Thursday it even went to “about 3,000.”

But any attempt to verify these figures runs up against some probably unavoidable squishiness in the data.

Unavoidable squishiness indeed. Read on:

The “more than 2,500” number traces, ultimately, to WorkForce West Virginia, which gets it from two places.

One is Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, layoff notices issued by companies to employees. That’s not a complete list of layoffs: companies generally only have to issue those notices if they employ more than 100 and are laying off more than 50 at a single facility, and if there are no extenuating circumstances. In addition, companies don’t have to notify WorkForce later if they don’t carry out all of the WARNed layoffs. So the WARN list misses some layoffs and may include some that never take place.

WorkForce can come closer to the real number because it also can find out how many people apply for unemployment compensation at its field offices across the state and where they were laid off from.

And WorkForce West Virginia is apparently where some folks in the media were getting their numbers. The agency put out a figure of 2,646 layoffs. But after both Pam and I pointed out some double-counting, they backed their figure down to 2,592.  And, as Pam went on to write:

The office also indicated that it stands by its methods and does not intend to change them or to stop reporting numbers derived in this way.

WorkForce’s numbers are ballpark at best.

And there’s more:

That also misses a larger point.

Recall that, even with losses of coal mining jobs in the first and second quarters of this year, mining employment in the state as of June was still higher than in 30 of the past 37 quarters — far higher than most of the past decade.

Yet little is said about the mines opening or increasing production in this election year. Maybe, with a reasonable fear of drawing attention to itself, the industry keeps quiet about new sites and expansions.

Twenty-nine West Virginia coal mines reported their first production to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2011 or 2012. Those new mines reported a combined production in the second quarter of 2012 of more than 900,000 tons and combined employment — miners, not including administrative support staff — of 1,038.

Pam continued:

… The fact is, the state’s industry is challenged by a lagging economy, by competition from persistently cheap natural gas and by its own geology. Mines that are marginal — because of depletion or distance from market or poor management or whatever reason — are streamlining, idling and closing.

At the same time, new mines are opening, and any talk of layoffs has to also take that into account.

But will the Commerce Department take these new mines and the jobs they bring into account when it provides “layoff” figures to the media, especially knowing that such numbers are going to quickly find their way into campaign ads? Before my vacation last week, I asked department spokeswoman Courtney Sisk this question:

How does this sort of a list — and releasing the total number of layoffs on it — provide the media or the public with an accurate impact of current developments in the coal industry? Does it include any accounting for a “net” change in jobs, as looking at MSHA or OMHST data does?

Here’s the response I got:

The public, media and employers can obtain detailed information on state economic and employment data through the Research, Information and Analysis division of WorkForce West Virginia.  Detailed  labor market information for West Virginia is available online.

Unfortunately, some folks have gone directly to that state data, and misunderstood or deliberately misused it. That’s probably where some folks got the notion that there were more than 3,000 mining jobs lost in West Virginia as of August. The state listed that big of a reduction in the “Mining and Logging” sector in one of its recent reports. But of course, those figures include changes in a much broader sector that also accounts for logging and oil and gas extraction. It’s hard to say what it means for coal, without drilling down to something more specific.

One of the things I’ve found most interesting as I’ve reported on these figures is how few industry officials or political leaders appear to actually have good sources for this kind of data. For example, I asked Rep. Capito’s office where they got their more than 2,000 figure, and they pointed me to this story from WSAS-TV, which doesn’t cite any source for its information.  When I asked Maloney’s campaign where they got their 2,500 figure, they pointed me back to one of Pam Kasey’s stories, which reported:

The state lost about 1,400 coal mining jobs in the first six months of the year, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the United Mine Workers puts layoffs in the past eight months at more than 2,500 … However, MSHA data show the state had more mining jobs coming into 2012, in spite of new environmental scrutiny, than at any time in the past decade.

Maloney’s campaign pulled out only the 2,500-layoffs figure — not the more complete number showing a net loss of 1,400 jobs from the MSHA data. Why? If every coal job is vital, then why do politicians feel the need to exaggerate things? Why especially would Gov. Tomblin want his Commerce Department to provide incomplete data that makes the situation under his watch worse than it is — when doing so just provides more fuel for the absurd campaign contention that the governor is part of some Obama administration scheme against this industry? Why doesn’t he instruct agency officials, when they release the layoff numbers, to point out that they aren’t the full picture, and provide the MSHA figures as well?

On one level, obviously, some of this doesn’t matter. If you’re a coal miner who has been laid off by Alpha or Patriot or anybody else, then it doesn’t matter to you that the net job loss is less than what Bill Maloney says it is. But for state policymakers, it’s important to have accurate and complete data to make decisions — if that is, you actually want to make reasoned decisions about something as important to our state as the future of the coal industry.