Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Cooper should bring out jobs expert to explain N.C. employment situation

The N.C. Division of Employment Security headquarters in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
The N.C. Division of Employment Security headquarters in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

So, where is the state’s jobs expert? I haven’t seen one. Is it Secretary of Commerce Tony Copeland or one of his employees?

Gov. Roy Cooper usually has Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry and Health and Human Services Director Dr. Mandy Cohen at his daily coronavirus briefings. Sprayberry talks about emergency response issues, and Cohen talks about health issues.

At 8:30 a.m. Friday, May 8, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics will release “The Employment Situation – April 2020,” a report on employment, unemployment, and the unemployment rate for the country. Unlike the March report, the April report will better reflect the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the labor market. Many experts and observers believe the national unemployment rate will be 20%.

If you want to know North Carolina’s official employment situation for April, you will have to wait until it’s released May 22. But Cooper, at his daily coronavirus briefing May 8, could bring out an expert from his Department of Commerce to tell us the unofficial employment situation. His expert would likely say the job loss percentage and unemployment rate in North Carolina will be similar to the national numbers. That is what I, a former jobs expert, would say.

Copeland has two divisions dealing with employment matters. Assistant Secretary for Employment Security Lockhart Taylor oversees the Division of Employment Security and the unemployment insurance system. DES issues a daily report on the number of claims filed and number of claimants paid. The information is useful. Taylor has shared his agency’s struggles in public briefings at the state’s Emergency Operations Center and before House committees dealing with the coronavirus. DES reports that it has received more than 1 million claims since March 15. The state’s labor force is about 5 million people.

Taylor may understand some of the methods federal and state agencies use to estimate employment and unemployment. But the BLS programs aren’t in his division.

Instead, they’re in the Labor and Economic Analysis Division, which reports to Assistant Secretary of Policy, Research and Strategy Meihui Bodane. LEAD has “(more than) 30 research and technical professionals who carry out data collection and information processing, research, and statistical analyses, evaluation and reporting for the state of North Carolina,’’ on topics including the labor market conditions.

Bodane and her division have been nearly invisible since March 16, when Cooper shut down bars and restaurants.

Before joining the John Locke Foundation 25 years ago, I served as deputy director of the Labor Market Information Division of the Employment Security Commission. I supervised the same programs now assigned to Bodane. I wanted her to clarify her relationship with BLS. I was unsuccessful reaching Bodane or anyone in her division.

Monday evening, I received an email from Commerce Communications Director David Rhoades. He said Janet Rankin, regional commissioner of the BLS Office in Atlanta, was available to answer questions regarding the state’s role and responsibilities with the BLS programs. For some reason, Rhoades doesn’t want Bodane to explain her programs to me.

I contacted Rankin onTuesday. We had a great conversation. I met her about 40 year ago and have used her as a reliable source in reporting stories for Carolina Journal. She confirmed that as the BLS partner in North Carolina, LEAD has the responsibility to review and analyze employment data primarily collected by BLS. But how much analysis “is clearly a state call,” she said. Rankin said the expertise in employment numbers lies within the Department of Commerce with the LEAD staff.

I also talked with former N.C. Commerce Secretary John Skvarla about LEAD. He served as secretary in 2015 and 2016 under Gov. Pat McCrory. “When I was in Commerce, LEAD was one of my finest and most valuable resources. I would make LEAD available to get information out and have it in the middle of the discussions of how to deal with the coronavirus,” he said.

Come on, governor. Bring out your expert.

Don Carrington is an investigative reporter for Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation. Before joining JLF 25 years ago, he worked for more than eight years with the Employment Security Commission, with the last five as deputy director of the Labor Market Information Division.