According to Robert Hall (Restat, 2005), Employment Efficiency and Sticky Wages: Evidence from Flows in the Labor Market:
... recessions do not begin with a burst of layoffs. Unemployment rises because jobs are hard to find, not because an unusual number of people are thrown into unemployment.
What does the data say? From FRED, the monthly total layoffs and discharges show that the current recession did not begin with layoffs:
This assumes among other things that the NBER dating committee correctly pinpointed the date of the recession. Could this also be a result of seasonal adjustment? The following is unadjusted totals:
And unadjusted rates:
The plots show that layoffs occur regularly with clear cycles. Layoffs can be higher or lower in or out of recessions.
Unconvinced is Shigeru Fujita. The following is Figure 4 of his paper, and one would expect that in order to say that Hall is incorrect, the job loss rate should show a spike just prior to the beginning of the recession and furthermore this spike should be higher than all the job loss rates prior to the recession (from the trough of the previous recession).
Perhaps this is too much to ask of the data, and as much as I hate to admit it, perhaps Hall is right. I began this post thinking I could prove him wrong.