How hard can it be to figure out whether a person is employed or unemployed? Turns out, it can be hard. When BLS put out the employment and unemployment numbers for March, April, and May 2020, we also provided information about misclassification of some people. I want to spend some time to explain this issue, how it affected the data, and how we are addressing it.
In the monthly Current Population Survey of U.S. households, people age 16 and older are placed into one of three categories:
- Employed — they worked at least one hour “for pay or profit” during the past week.
- Unemployed — they did not work but actively looked for work during the past 4 weeks OR they were on temporary layoff and expect to return to work.
- Not in the labor force — everyone else (including students, retirees, those who have given up their job search, and others).
Again, how hard can this be? It starts to get tricky when we talk to people who say they have a steady job but did not work any hours during the past week. In normal times, this might include people on vacation, home sick, or on jury duty. And we would continue to count them as employed. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, the collapse of labor markets created challenges the likes of which BLS has never encountered. People who reported zero hours of work offered such explanations as “I work at a sports arena and everything is postponed” or “the restaurant I work at is closed.” These people should be counted as unemployed on temporary layoff. As it turns out, a large number of people—we estimate about 4.9 million in May—were misclassified.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unemployment rate—at a 50-year low of 3.5 percent in February—rose sharply to 4.4 percent in March and to 14.7 percent in April, before easing to 13.3 percent in May. Despite the stark difference from February, we believe the unemployment rate likely was higher than reported in March, April, and May. As stated in our Employment Situation news releases for each of those months, some people in the Current Population Survey (also known as the CPS or household survey) were classified as employed but probably should have been classified as unemployed.
How did the misclassification happen?
We uncovered the misclassification because we saw a sharp rise in the number of people who were employed but were absent from their jobs for the entire reference week for “other reasons.” The misclassification hinges on how survey interviewers record answers to a question on why people who had a job were absent from work the previous week.
According to special pandemic-related interviewer instructions for this question, answers from people who said they were absent because of pandemic-related business closures should have been recorded as “on layoff (temporary or indefinite).” Instead, many of these answers were recorded as “other reasons.” Recording these answers as “on layoff (temporary or indefinite)” ensures that people are asked the follow-up questions needed to classify them as unemployed. It does not necessarily mean they would be classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, but I’ll get into that in a moment.
When interviewers record a response of “other reasons” to this question, they also add a few words describing that other reason. BLS reviewed these descriptions to better understand the large increase in the number of people absent from work for “other reasons.” Our analysis suggests this group of people included many who were on layoff because of the pandemic. They would have been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff had their answers been recorded correctly.
What are BLS and the Census Bureau doing to address the misclassification?
BLS and our partners at the U.S. Census Bureau take misclassification very seriously. We’re taking more steps to fix this problem. (The Census Bureau is responsible for collecting the household survey data, and BLS is responsible for analyzing and publishing the labor market data from the survey.) Both agencies are continuing to investigate why the misclassification occurred.
Before the March data collection, we anticipated some issues with certain questions in the survey because of the unprecedented nature of this national crisis. As a result, interviewers received special instructions on how to answer the temporarily absent question if a person said they had a job but did not work because of the pandemic. Nevertheless, we determined that not all of the responses to this question in March were coded according to the special instructions. Therefore, before the April data collection, all interviewers received an email that included instructions with more detailed examples, along with a reference table to help them code responses to this question. However, the misclassification was still evident in the April data. Before the May data collection, every field supervisor had a conference call with the interviewers they manage. In these conference calls, the supervisors reviewed the detailed instructions, provided examples to clarify the instructions, and answered interviewers’ questions.
Although we noticed some improvement for May, the misclassification persisted. Therefore, we have taken more steps to correct the problem. Before the June collection, the Census Bureau provided more training to review the guidance to the interviewers. The interviewers also received extra training aids. The electronic survey questionnaire also now has new special instructions that will be more accessible during survey interviews.
Why doesn’t BLS adjust the unemployment rate to account for the misclassification?
As I explained above, we know some workers classified as absent from work for “other reasons” are misclassified. People have asked why we just don’t reclassify these people from employed to unemployed. The answer is there is no easy correction we could have made. Changing a person’s labor force classification would involve more than changing the response to the question about why people were absent from their jobs.
Although we believe many responses to the question on why people were absent from their jobs appear to have been incorrectly recorded, we do not have enough information to reclassify each person’s labor force status. To begin with, we don’t know the exact information provided by the person responding to the survey. We know the brief descriptions included in the “other reasons” category often appear to go against the guidance provided to the survey interviewers. But we don’t have all of the information the respondent might have provided during the interview.
Also, we don’t know the answers to the questions respondents would have been asked if their answers to the question on the reason not at work had been coded differently. This is because people whose answers were recorded as absent from work for “other reasons” were not asked the follow-up questions needed to determine whether they should be classified as unemployed. Specifically, we don’t know whether they expected to be recalled to work and whether they could return to work if recalled. Therefore, shifting people’s answers from “other reasons” to “on layoff (temporary or indefinite)” would not have been enough to change their classification from employed to unemployed. We would have had to assume how they would have responded to the follow-up questions. Had we changed answers based on wrong assumptions, we would have introduced more error.
In addition, our usual practice is to accept data from the household survey as recorded. In the 80-year history of the household survey, we do not know of any actions taken on an ad hoc basis to change respondents’ answers to the labor force questions. Any ad hoc adjustment we could have made would have relied on assumptions instead of data. If BLS were to make ad hoc changes, it could also appear we were manipulating the data. That’s something we’ll never do.
How much did the misclassification affect the unemployment rate?
We don’t know the exact extent of this misclassification. To figure out what the unemployment rate might have been if there were no misclassification, we have to make some assumptions. These assumptions involve deciding (1) how many people in the “other reasons” category actually were misclassified, (2) how many people who were misclassified expected to be recalled, and (3) how many people who were misclassified were available to return to work.
In the material that accompanied our Employment Situation news releases for March, April, and May, we provided an estimate of the potential size of the misclassification and its impact on the unemployment rate. Here we assumed all of the increase in the number of employed people who were not at work for “other reasons,” when compared with the average for recent years, was due solely to misclassification. We also assumed all of these people expected to be recalled and were available to return to work.
For example, there were 5.4 million workers with a job but not at work who were included in the “other reasons” category in May 2020. That was about 4.9 million higher than the average for May 2016–19. If we assume this 4.9 million increase was entirely due to misclassification and all of these misclassified workers expected to be recalled and were available for work, the unemployment rate for May would have been 16.4 percent. (For more information about this, see items 12 and 13 in our note for May. We made similar calculations for March and April.)
These broad assumptions represent the upper bound of our estimate of misclassification. These assumptions result in the largest number of people being classified as unemployed and the largest increase in the unemployment rate. However, these assumptions probably overstate the size of the misclassification. It is unlikely that everyone who was misclassified expected to be recalled and was available to return to work. It is also unlikely that all of the increase in the number of employed people not at work for “other reasons” was due to misclassification. People may be correctly classified in the “other reasons” category. For example, someone who owns a business (and does not have another job) is classified as employed in the household survey. Business owners who are absent from work due to labor market downturns (or in this case, pandemic-related business closures) should be classified as employed but absent from work for “other reasons.”
Regardless of the assumptions we might make about misclassification, the trend in the unemployment rate over the period in question is the same; the rate increased in March and April and eased in May. BLS will continue to investigate the issue, attempting both to ensure that data are correctly recorded in future months and to provide more information about the effect of misclassification on the unemployment rate.