Small business hiring is falling by a record amount. Or, it's still rising slowly. That's the conflict presented by two new studies, one of them a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the other an index of actual payrolls compiled by Glenview, Illinois-based company SurePayroll.

The NFIB surveyed 800 small business owners and found an average decline of 0.86 workers per firm in December 2008, the biggest drop since monthly surveys began in 1986.

Meanwhile, the SurePayroll Scorecard actually found a slight rise during the same period. In December it rose by 0.2 percent for the month. The SurePayroll Scorecard is an index of over $3 billion in payrolls of 20,000 small businesses across the United States, according to CEO Michael Alter.

Alter believes that his survey is representative of a valid hiring trend. He argues that hiring is still increasing for three reasons: big companies are laying off qualified workers; spouses who previously didn't have to work are now looking for jobs; and then there are the Boomers.

"While not all small businesses are hiring, those that are able can find better quality workers for lower cost," Alter explained. "On top of all this you have the baby boomer generation who are working a few extra years."

Even the NFIB didn't find that hiring was at a dead halt: 40 percent of owners said they were still in the market for new employees, and 14 percent had vacancies to fill.

"There's hiring going on all the time," said William C. Dunkelberg, chief economist for the NFIB. "Forty-five percent of the firms went out and hired or tried to hire."