Ensuring Gold-Standard Data in the Eye of a Storm

“Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were the most notable storms of 2017, leaving paths of death and destruction in their wake.”
Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project 2017 summary report

Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project is forecasting the 2018 hurricane season activity (as of May 31) to be average, with 13 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes expected. Is BLS ready?

How does BLS deal with hurricanes?

Since June starts hurricane season, we want to share with you one example of how last year’s storms affected our data. We present a case study using our national employment survey, the Current Employment Statistics program. This program provides monthly estimates we publish in The Employment Situation—sometimes called the “jobs report.”

We have procedures to address natural disasters. We highlight some of our challenges and how we address them. We do everything possible to provide you with gold-standard data to help you make smart decisions!

2017 Hurricane Destruction

Two major hurricanes—Harvey and Irma—blasted the U.S. mainland in August and September 2017. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands later in September.

  • Harvey first made landfall in Texas on August 25. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared 39 Texas counties eligible for federal disaster assistance after Harvey. Harvey also caused heavy damage in Louisiana.
  • Irma hit the Florida Keys on September 10 and then later hit Florida’s southern coast. FEMA declared 48 Florida counties eligible for federal disaster assistance. Before Irma hit the lower Florida Keys, the hurricane already had caused severe damage in St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico.
  • Hurricane Maria made landfall in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, September 20, causing catastrophic damage. These areas already had suffered damage from Hurricane Irma earlier in the month.

Some things to know about the monthly employment survey

The monthly employment survey is a sample of nonfarm businesses and government agencies. The reference period is the pay period that includes the 12th of the month. The sample has just over 23,000 active reporting units in the disaster areas, representing about 6 percent of the entire active sample.

What does it mean to be employed? If the employer pays someone for any part of the reference pay period, that person is counted as employed.

How did BLS collect data in these disaster areas?

Our biggest challenge is to collect representative sample data so we publish high-quality estimates. In the “old days,” the survey was a mail survey (yes, I mean snail mail), but no more! Now we collect data electronically by several different methods. These are the most common:

  • About half the total sample uses electronic data interchange. That’s a centralized electronic data reporting system for multi-establishment firms. The firm provides an electronic file directly from their payroll system to BLS for all establishments included in the report. Most of the firms reporting are outside of the hurricane-affected areas, although they may report on establishments within the affected areas.
  • About 23 percent of establishments use computer-assisted telephone interviews.
  • Another 16 percent report using our Internet Data Collection Facility.

Using these methods, we were able to collect data from most sampled businesses in these areas using normal procedures.

What about the emergency workers working in the disaster areas? How are they counted?

  • We count emergency workers where their employer is located, not where they are working.
  • We don’t count volunteers as employed because they are not paid.
  • Activated National Guard troops are considered active duty military and are outside the scope of the survey.

Did the estimation procedures change?

Once we collect the data from businesses in the affected areas, we consider whether we need to change our estimation procedures to adjust for missing data. The survey staff determined that we didn’t need to change our methods because the collection rates in the affected areas were within normal ranges.

How did the hurricanes affect national employment data for September 2017?

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reduced the estimate of national payroll employment for September 2017. We can’t measure the effects precisely because the survey is not designed to isolate the effects of catastrophic events. National nonfarm employment changed little (+14,000) in September 2017, after increasing by an average of 189,000 per month over the prior 12 months. A steep employment decline in food services and drinking places and below-trend growth in some industries likely reflected the impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

What about Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands?

National nonfarm employment estimates do not include Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Because of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could not conduct normal data collection for their establishment surveys. The September estimates for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were delayed. The October and November estimates for the Virgin Islands also were delayed. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands eventually were able to produce estimates for September, October, and November 2017.

Want more information?

For more information on the impact of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, check out these pages:

What else does BLS know about hurricanes?

The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages produces maps of businesses and employment in flood zones for states on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts that are vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storm. You can read more about those maps in another recent blog.

We hope the 2018 hurricane season won’t bring the loss of life and destruction of property that we saw in 2017. Regardless of what the season brings, BLS will be ready to continue providing gold-standard data about the labor market and economy.