Ithaca, N.Y. — While Ithaca has fared better than its upstate counterparts over the past decade, the past 12 months may have been much worse, according to the recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.

The latest data released shows that when compared to May 2013, 1,300 jobs have been eliminated, 1.8% of Ithaca’s nonfarm employment total.

Typically in payroll and economic analyses, growth/loss comparisons are conducted using the same month in different years, instead of month to month, to adjust for the impact of seasonal jobs in the payroll totals (for Ithaca, there are less jobs in January and the summer months, when the schools are on winter and summer breaks).

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The reported shrinkage in the job market continues a trend seen throughout this year of a decrease in employment numbers, with only January showing a job count higher than the same month last year.

This is an extremely large drop for a 12-month period. It’s the largest drop for any metropolitan area for the state of New York. Out of 372 metropolitan areas nationwide, only 7 saw larger percent drops in non-farm payrolls than Ithaca.

Rapidly decreasing payroll numbers have the potential to inflict serious damage to the local economy. Given the generally good economic news heard in Ithaca and Tompkins County, it’s worth looking into the numbers to try and figure out what’s going on.

(Over the last decade, Ithaca and Tompkins County represented the only metropolitan area in upstate NY with employment totals that showed significant growth.)

Looking at the breakdown for types of employers over the past year, most of the drop can be attributed to the “Education and Health Services” sector, which dominates the local job market.

Preliminary May numbers show that since May 2013, 1,000 jobs in this sector have been lost from the Ithaca market. “Trade, Transportation and Utilities”, “Professional and Business Services”, and “Leisure and Hospitality” and “Government” have also recorded losses of about 100 jobs each. Only one sector has shown growth when compared to May 2013 – “Manufacturing”, which has added about 100 jobs over the past year.

With such a large decrease in jobs, a mass layoff of some kind would seem like a likely culprit. In the event of a closing of a facility with 25 or more employees, a layoff of 25 employees if the company has 75 employees or less, or a layoff of 250 from a large organization, a New York State WARN notice must be filed with the Department of Labor.

An analysis of the southern region WARN notices reveals only two filed or carried out over the past year in Tompkins County – a WARN notice was filed when the Hotel Ithaca expected to lay off its 95 employees during its renovation (the notice was later rescinded), and a second notice was filed when Cornell contracted out 37 positions last year at the Animal Science Teaching and Research Center.

Cornell’s employment figures reveal November 2013 numbers of 7,070 non-academic staff (a decrease of 4 from November 2012), and 2,660 academic staff (an almighty increase of 1 from 2012).

However, the education/health sector started to see major year-over-year payroll decreases in December 2013; the possibility of a large layoff in some form at Cornell is unlikely, but not impossible, since it would not be required to file a WARN notice, and the stats from Cornell’s website date from before the period of significant 12-month job losses. Ithaca College showed a decrease of 12 employees from 2012 to 2013; it, too, would not be required to file a WARN notice, though it would be hard to believe that either school could conduct mass layoffs without the community being aware of it.

From a statistical standpoint, the data could be off, since it’s based off of a monthly joint federal-state survey of 18,000 establishments in New York State.

But the numbers have been consistently low this year, and continue to be low after preliminary revisions, making it less likely that the statistics are the result of bad sampling.

If there’s any silver lining in this analysis, it’s that it wouldn’t be the first time bad sampling gave highly misleading statistics – Spring 2012 had similar issues with large job losses; for instance, the June 2012 state press release declared that 3,200 jobs had been lost from Ithaca from May 2011 to May 2012. Those numbers have since been revised to show an increase of 1,200 over that time period.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.