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Labor Department needs better system of determining employment numbers

All those jobs Buffalo was producing? Maybe not. Or maybe so. Who can tell, when the state Labor Department can’t produce a set of reliable numbers?

Let’s just say it: As of last week, the state Labor Department’s reports on rates of employment in New York are worthless. Believe them at your own risk.

What other conclusion can anyone reach? The department has revised its employment figures for the Buffalo Niagara region to show that, instead of a growth rate of 1.6 percent, hiring rose by a pitiful 0.53 percent in 2015 – the slowest growth in five years.

The changes mean 2015 went from what was reported as the strongest year for job growth in 16 years to the slowest pace of hiring since 2010.

Assuming, of course, that the new numbers are correct. And not everyone believes that.

The problem here is that no one can tell if Buffalo should be shocked at the new numbers or should dismiss them as further evidence of statistical incompetence. But this much is certain: The Labor Department not only has to fix whatever systemic problems it has in producing accurate employment figures, but also needs to convince those who rely on its announcements that it has done so. That will take some doing.

For reasons that are, thus far, beyond understanding, the Labor Department previously reported numbers that showed the local companies hiring at a pace not seen here since 1999. The new numbers, based on calculations that included more complete payroll tax and census data, told a radically different story. Hiring was only about a third of the figures previously reported and, with that, 6,100 presumed jobs were blown off the books like so much dust.

The revision was based on a federally mandated review of job statistics, but if that approach truly provides data so dramatically more reliable, it only raises the question of why New York wasn’t conducting its surveys that way to begin with.

Just to add to the confusion, the Labor Department released figures Tuesday that showed the region’s unemployment rate hit a nine-year low of 5.7 percent in January. That should be good news, except that a revision of last year’s unemployment numbers shows the decline is not as steep as previously reported.

Not everyone is confident of the revised employment figures.

“Now, they’re telling us that what we thought it was – wasn’t,” said George M. Palumbo, a Canisius College economist. “Buffalo renaissance – question mark?”

“There’s an odor about these numbers,” said Gary D. Keith, M&T Bank’s regional economist in Buffalo. “It doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

They certainly seem odd, but they are now the numbers that the Labor Department is claiming to be accurate. Either it was spectacularly wrong then or it is spectacularly wrong now. Pick your poison.

This is not a place from which the Labor Department can simply brush itself off and proceed as if nothing happened. With its jarring new report, it has sacrificed its standing as a credible source for the numbers upon which everything from government policy to consumer confidence relies.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needs to treat this as the public economic calamity that it is. To get critical information so wrong – one way or the other – is intolerable for the people of New York.