Mass layoffs in Wisconsin up 60 percent in 2015

Wisconsin entered the end of 2015 with an unemployment rate below the national average and down a full percentage point from the same time last year. But the year wasn’t all good news on the employment front, as the number of plant closings and mass layoffs, and the number of workers affected by them, increased over 2014.

When Manitowoc Cranes informed state and local officials in mid-December of plans to close its Port Washington facility and move operations to Manitowoc, it was just the latest in a growing list of plant closures.

Source: Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development
Source: Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development

Through Dec. 15, there were a total of 100 mass layoff notices provided to the state, according to Department of Workforce Development data. In 2014, a total of 83 notices were provided. The number of workers affected by those decisions was up more than 60 percent, from 6,186 in 2014 to 10,081 in 2015.

The figures come from the department’s listings of Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, notices. These notices are required under Wisconsin law for companies employing 50 or more people in the state when they plan to shut down a facility or lay off a large number of workers. Companies are also encouraged by the state to provide notice even in situations that may not technically meet the requirements for a notice. Not every company goes through with the plans after providing notice, and in some cases the amount of layoffs is reduced.

While the number of workers affected in 2015 was the highest total in the past five years, it was still well behind the figures from 2008 and 2009, when roughly 18,000 were affected on average each year by new closings and layoffs.

Asked about the increase in workers affected in 2015, Department of Workforce Development spokesman Ethan Schuh said those looking for jobs “are benefiting from a robust job market.”

“In Wisconsin we have seen that there are far more examples of gaining jobs than losing jobs year over year, as indicated by the monthly job numbers,” Schuh said.

He added that November’s 4.2 percent unemployment rate was a 14-year low and the state added 33,400 jobs from November 2014 to November 2015. He also noted the number of new business fillings was up 3.6 percent.

The 2015 layoff figures were driven up by two notices in particular, Schuh noted.

In March, Wells Fargo announced plans to close its Milwaukee servicing office, citing an improving economy and reduced delinquencies and demand from customers who need help staying in their homes. The company provided notice in May for 839 affected workers.

In June, Assurant Health announced plans to exit the health insurance market, leading to the layoff of 1,200 people in Milwaukee over 18 months.

But there were several other high-profile closures announced in 2015, including the planned closure of the Oscar Meyer plant in Madison, eliminating 1,000 jobs.

GE announced plans to stop manufacturing engines in Waukesha, moving operations to Canada. The company initially cited Congress’ failure to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, but later indicated it wouldn’t reconsider the move when the bank was reauthorized.

Joy Global, dealing with what a spokeswoman called “the toughest market conditions our business and our customers have ever seen” announced a number of layoffs and closures, including the temporary closure of its Original Equipment department and the closure of its Orchard Street plant in Milwaukee.

Schuh said that it isn’t uncommon for other employers to reach out to the department “as workers affected by dislocations often have highly marketable skills for openings that employers have available today.”

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.