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Tips for covering job losses: Company filings can give you what people won’t

Jobs Fair line

Photo by Flickr user mjcrodez

On Thursday, the stock market swung back up at least partially on news that weekly jobless claims were down and partially on good profit numbers from some companies. But with the week of dramatic ups-and-downs, the economic outlook is far from certain. As the middling economic recovery of the last year or so shows, corporate profits are not necessarily translating into good long-term job growth or even businesses investing in new facilities – at least not here in the United States.

So, it’s a good idea to be prepared when bad economic news does hit your local area – even if the economy doesn’t take a hit in the next few months, it’s no guarantee there won’t be more layoffs and closings on your beat.

In my own personal experience as a reporter when a local business or manufacturing plant shuts its doors, it’s either feast or famine when it comes to getting the story. Some company officials are more than willing to talk about what happened and employees want to vent. But at other companies, officials try to keep reporters in the dark and employees refuse to talk, some out of fear because they’ve been warned not to speak or perhaps have signed a non-disclosure agreement, others out of just plain anger and frustration.

But nothing is more frustrating as a reporter than being chased off the property of a closing manufacturing plant by company security and then watching employees scurry to their cars.

Yet even if you can’t convince people to talk to you, the company (even if it’s a privately held corporation) may have had to make some disclosures to the state and federal governments. Here are a few good resources to start digging for that story:

WARN notices

The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (known as WARN) requires that with any layoff of 50 or more people (with a handful of exceptions), a company needs to give the state government some warning. Ideally, state officials can swing into action and get the newly unemployed some help – help finding new jobs or qualifying for health-care credits. While company and state officials might have informed workers of their rights to access the help, not every company or state does a good job of it.

Luckily, states publicly disclose the WARN notices. Here, for example, is Washington state’s notification page. Some of the layoffs listed, like the top two which relate to the end of federal funding for a nuclear clean-up project, have been covered and are usually easy to find out about. But, others like the closing of a manufacturing plant for Monterey Gourmet Foods in Kent, Wa. (where they make pre-made pasta and sauces) have had barely a mention in the news media – even though 75 workers are losing their jobs and the entire plant is shutting for good.

Obviously there’s a news hook if there are imminent layoffs. And if you’re working on a story about recent economic trends, flipping through the history of past disclosure can show the real record of what’s happening with local jobs that you might not be able to get from state economic development officials or politicians.

Jobs training center

Notification is meant to give states an opportunity to offer employees services including training.

Trade Adjustment Assistance

While it’s worthwhile to help spread the word about the benefits available to workers, digging into these records can also help you get the inside scoop on what really went down – were jobs lost through mismanagement, bad economic times or maybe company officials decided to outsource the positions.

If the economy does successfully pull through this week’s bad news, it doesn’t mean jobs are safe. While the stock market jumped on profit news yesterday, the government also announced the trade deficit increased. If a company you cover makes the calculation that moving the jobs overseas can increase profits, that’s really something executives might be reluctant to talk about.

Again in this case, there’s another federal program you can use to your advantage – the Trade Adjustment Assistance. When jobs are sent overseas or hours are cut back, workers can receive assistance, much like job losses reported in the WARN Act. To qualify, the government must certify that international trade was to blame, and you can search for petitions, either by company name or by geographic region. Not all petitions are accepted, but you can see which ones are still pending, and read the completed decisions which often can shed light on what happened. Even if the final decision doesn’t give you the details you want, you can ask to read the actual petition (although you may have to use a Freedom of Information Act request to get it). Individual worker names will likely be blacked out, but you’ll be able to get a sense of who is being affected by the job loss, where the jobs are going and other valuable details.

What about the jobs that stay?

A final quick tip – if some jobs are staying, or even if layoffs haven’t occurred yet, it’s worth checking out the quality of the jobs that still exist. Again, company executives aren’t likely to speak frankly about poor working conditions and employees might be too frightened to say what they’ve seen inside a workplace, but as before, the federal government knows. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) investigates complaints about workplace safety and the results of their investigations are online.

I checked out Monterey Gourmet Foods – no complaints for the Washington location that is closing, but there were several incidents reported at a California plant that manufactures frozen pasta. To give you an idea of the kind of details these OSHA reports can offer, here’s the report on a 2002 incident involving a ravioli maker that wasn’t turned off before cleaning. Not only does it have the gory details, but it also lists the fines the company was given – about $28,000 – and how much they ended up paying – only about $4,500.

About the Author

Russ Choma is investigative reporter in Washington, D.C., where he works for the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

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