Trying to Understand an Unusual Employment Report

This column is called the Commissioner’s Corner, but I’m just keeping the seat warm until a new Commissioner is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. More often than not I feel like I’m back in school, having to learn new concepts from scratch. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated BLS employees who go out of their way to make sure things are done correctly and are very patient in helping me to learn new things. That certainly was the case with the September 2017 Employment Situation report, released on October 6.

The turnaround time from data collection to processing to publication of most BLS data series is very short. That’s the case with the monthly employment and unemployment information. I first saw the payroll employment information about 48 hours before we would release it, and my reaction isn’t suitable for a G-rated blog. What happened? The employment information looked so much different from the recent trend. Fortunately, some more information from that dedicated staff helped me to understand what was going on.

If you haven’t heard, it’s hurricane season. And several storms affected the United States in August and September. Evacuations, damaged businesses, and damaged homes have a lot of implications, including for the job market. Let me give you my description of what the data reveal, using (I hope) some nontechnical terms.

The monthly Employment Situation release contains information from two separate surveys—a survey of businesses (called the Current Employment Statistics program) and a survey of households (called the Current Population Survey). We get different information from each survey, but over time they typically tell a consistent story. For example, during the 2007–09 recession, the business survey showed a decline in jobs, while the household survey showed an increase in unemployment. A consistent story.

So what happened in September 2017?

The business survey asks how many workers were paid for any time during the payroll period that includes the 12th of September. An important fact to understand is that people who did not receive pay for the payroll period are not counted as employed. In September, the business survey showed that the number of jobs in “food service and drinking places” (let’s call them restaurants) declined by 105,000 from the previous month. That’s very different from the trend, which has shown consistent job gains. Workers in these jobs are typically paid on an hourly basis and don’t get paid if they don’t work. This large decline in restaurant jobs in turn affected the overall number of jobs, which declined by 33,000.

Chart showing over-the-month change in food services and drinking places employment

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available in the table below.

In contrast, the household survey showed an increase in people who were employed and a decrease in the unemployment rate. Once again, it is important to understand definitions. In this survey, people are counted as employed if they had a job but did not work due to bad weather, whether or not they were paid. So those same restaurant workers who were not paid and therefore not counted in the business survey were counted as employed in the household survey.

And the household survey tells us more. In something we call the “bad weather” series, 1.5 million employed Americans were not at work due to bad weather during the week that included September 12. This is the highest number for that series in over 20 years. In contrast, in September 2016 there were only 24,000 people in this category. The number of “bad weather” workers was unusually high because Hurricane Irma happened to fall during the week that included September 12—the reference period for the survey. The figure was much lower for many other major weather events, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, because those events fell outside the reference period for the survey.

Chart showing the number of people each month with a job in nonagricultural industries but were not at work because of bad weather.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available at https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU02036012

So what I thought would be a major story turned out to be easily explained by weather events and differing definitions. And it taught me something new about the wide variety of information available from BLS.

One last note. The national information included in the monthly Employment Situation news release does not include data for the U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Data for some territories are included with the State Employment and Unemployment news release, which typically is available a couple weeks after the national data. Want to know about how recent hurricanes have affected BLS data? See our page about Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Over-the-month change in food services and drinking places employment
Month Change
Jan 2014 22,700
Feb 2014 6,500
Mar 2014 61,000
Apr 2014 36,600
May 2014 39,600
Jun 2014 25,000
Jul 2014 13,500
Aug 2014 23,300
Sep 2014 31,400
Oct 2014 24,700
Nov 2014 26,300
Dec 2014 36,400
Jan 2015 17,600
Feb 2015 46,200
Mar 2015 11,600
Apr 2015 37,100
May 2015 33,900
Jun 2015 46,500
Jul 2015 39,700
Aug 2015 26,400
Sep 2015 36,200
Oct 2015 52,900
Nov 2015 30,800
Dec 2015 38,000
Jan 2016 30,000
Feb 2016 28,100
Mar 2016 32,700
Apr 2016 16,900
May 2016 24,600
Jun 2016 21,900
Jul 2016 19,100
Aug 2016 32,300
Sep 2016 20,800
Oct 2016 11,500
Nov 2016 23,700
Dec 2016 14,700
Jan 2017 18,000
Feb 2017 20,600
Mar 2017 27,900
Apr 2017 26,100
May 2017 37,200
Jun 2017 20,500
Jul 2017 52,000
Aug 2017(p) 8,600
Sep 2017(p) -104,700
Footnotes:

(p) = preliminary