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Topic Archives: Employee Recognition

Innovations at BLS during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Our work at the Bureau of Labor Statistics is driven by the idea that good measurement leads to better decisions. Good measures of economic and social conditions help public policymakers and private businesses and households assess opportunities and areas for improvement. Measuring these conditions consistently over time helps people who use our data evaluate the impact of public and private decisions.

We also believe we must be completely transparent about the design of our surveys and programs and the methods we use to conduct them. It isn’t enough to publish statistics and expect people simply to trust their quality. We gain this trust by documenting the design and procedures for all our programs in our Handbook of Methods. Our website also explains our policies for ensuring data quality and protecting the confidentiality and privacy of the people and businesses who participate in our surveys and programs. Further, BLS works with the wider U.S. statistical community to ensure and enhance the quality of statistical information.

Good measures are essential in “normal” times, but the global COVID-19 pandemic has made these last few months anything but normal. I am so proud of the work of the career professionals at BLS and our fellow statistical agencies for continuing to produce vital economic statistics. Our entire BLS staff moved to full-time telework in mid-March and didn’t miss a beat. We continue to publish measures of labor market activity, working conditions, price changes, and productivity like BLS has done since its founding in 1884. See our dashboard of key economic indicators in the time of COVID-19.

Publishing these measures hasn’t been easy. The pandemic has raised new questions about how businesses, households, and consumers have changed their behavior. BLS also has had to innovate to find new ways of doing things during the pandemic.

Today I want to tell you about the new data we have been collecting to learn more about the effects of the pandemic. I also want to tell you about some of the ways the BLS staff has innovated to keep producing data that are accurate, objective, relevant, timely, and accessible.

New Data

How businesses have responded to the pandemic

We have collected new data on how U.S. businesses changed their operations and employment from the onset of the pandemic through September 2020. This information, combined with data collected in other BLS surveys, will aid in understanding how businesses responded during the pandemic. Other statistics we have collected and published during the pandemic show changes in employment, job openings and terminations, wages, employer-provided benefits, prices, and more. These new data provide more insights by asking employers directly what they experienced as a result of the pandemic and how they reacted. Data for the Business Response Survey to the Coronavirus Pandemic will be released in early December 2020.

Changes in telework, loss of jobs, and job search

The Current Population Survey is the large monthly survey of U.S. households from which we measure the unemployment rate and other important labor market indicators. We added questions to the survey to help gauge the effects of the pandemic on the labor market. These questions were added in May 2020 and will remain in the survey until further notice. One question asks whether people teleworked or worked from home because of the pandemic.

Percent of employed people who teleworked at some point in the previous 4 weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, May through October 2020

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

Other questions ask whether people were unable to work because their employers closed or lost business because of the pandemic; whether they were paid for that missed work; and whether the pandemic prevented them from searching for jobs.

Number of people not in the labor force who did not look for work because of the COVID-19  pandemic, May through October 2020

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

Changes in sick leave plans

We added several questions to the National Compensation Survey to understand the effects of the pandemic on sick leave plans. The questions asked whether private industry establishments changed their leave policies and whether employees used sick leave between March 1 and May 31, 2020.

Receiving and using stimulus payments during the pandemic

BLS is one of several federal agencies that developed questions for the rapid response Household Pulse Survey. The survey is a collaboration among the U.S. Census Bureau, BLS, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. BLS contributed questions on the receipt and use of Economic Impact Payments and on sources of income used to meet spending needs during the pandemic.

Our staff will continue to publish research on how the pandemic has affected the labor market and markets for goods and services. Check back regularly as we add to this library of research.

Innovations in Data Collection and Training

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused profound changes in the daily lives of Americans. BLS is no exception. As I mentioned earlier, all BLS staff moved to full-time telework in March. The pandemic hasn’t prevented us from continuing to publish high-quality data, but we have had to change some of our data-collection methods and estimation procedures. We will continue to explain those changes so you can understand how they affect the quality of our measures.

Our survey respondents are the heart of everything we do at BLS. Without their generous and voluntary cooperation, we would not be able to publish high-quality data for public and private decision making. Respondents have businesses and households to run, and a pandemic is a challenging time to ask for their help. The data-collection staffs at BLS, the U.S. Census Bureau, and our state partners form great relationships with survey respondents. We must continue to protect the health of data collectors while also training them in a rapidly changing environment. Let me highlight a few of the innovative changes we have made during the pandemic that focus on our relationships with respondents and how we train data collectors.

Using videoconferencing technology for data collection

Several of our surveys have started using videoconferencing tools to speak with respondents and collect data from them. Some of the surveys that now use this technology include the National Compensation Survey, the Occupational Requirements Survey, and the Producer Price Index. Many of our surveys previously relied on interviewers visiting businesses or households to collect data. We suspended all in-person data collection in March to protect the health of data collectors and respondents, so we had to find other ways to collect data. Many of our surveys also use telephone and internet to collect data, but those modes aren’t always ideal for every kind of data. We often need to develop personal relationships with respondents to gain their trust and cooperation and ensure high-quality data. Videoconferencing helps us accomplish what we often can’t do with phones or web survey forms.

The Occupational Requirements Survey is one that has begun using videoconferencing in data collection. The survey provides information about the physical demands; environmental conditions; education, training, and experience; and cognitive and mental requirements for jobs in the U.S. economy. Collecting data for this survey often requires visual aids, hand gestures, and other nonverbal information to understand job characteristics. It often helps to watch jobs as they are performed at a worksite, but that’s not an option during the pandemic. Videoconferencing is the next best alternative.

Many of our data collectors and respondents have mentioned how helpful videoconferencing is for developing a rapport and for sharing screens and other visual information. Videoconferencing also helps us reduce travel and lodging costs, so we likely will continue to rely on videoconferencing at least partly even after the pandemic.

Using videoconferencing technology for training and mentoring

Many of our surveys are complex and require considerable ongoing training for data collectors. For example, before the pandemic, our Consumer Price Index Commodities and Services (C&S) survey involved in-person training at our Washington, DC, headquarters. There were two classroom training courses: a 2-week introductory course and a 1-week advanced course. Each course was followed by on-the-job training held in our regional offices. Even before the pandemic, we were developing videoconference training. The pandemic caused us to accelerate these plans. We now provide C&S survey training through video collaboration tools. We also integrate on-the-job training throughout the classes.

Several other surveys have adopted a similar training approach as the Consumer Price Index. Our data-collection staffs also increasingly use videoconferencing for mentoring and to share ideas about how to make the data-collection experience better for data collectors and respondents.

A final note

Before I conclude, I want to share some sad news about one of the people who played an indispensable leadership role in developing the new survey questions and innovative data-collection and training methods. Jennifer Edgar, our Associate Commissioner for Survey Methods Research, died November 8 in a tragic fall in her home. She leaves behind her husband and two young children, her parents, and her sister. Moreover, she leaves hundreds of BLS colleagues and many more throughout the statistical community and beyond, who will grieve the loss of an exceptionally gifted friend and professional whose great promise was cut suddenly and tragically short. Jennifer was using her considerable energies to move BLS forward. Her passing is a huge blow to her family, loved ones, and the entire statistical community. We are working on ways to ensure Jennifer’s memory and passion is forever present at BLS.

Percent of employed people who teleworked at some point in the previous 4 weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic
MonthPercent

May 2020

35.4%

Jun 2020

31.3

Jul 2020

26.4

Aug 2020

24.3

Sep 2020

22.7

Oct 2020

21.2
Number of people not in the labor force who did not look for work because of the COVID-19 pandemic
MonthNumber not in the labor force

May 2020

9,740,000

Jun 2020

7,043,000

Jul 2020

6,454,000

Aug 2020

5,200,000

Sep 2020

4,499,000

Oct 2020

3,563,000

Labor Day 2020 Fast Facts

I have been Commissioner of Labor Statistics for about a year and a half now, and what a time it has been! BLS has faced many challenges throughout its history, but none quite like those from the COVID-19 pandemic. All of our staff moved to full-time telework March 16, and I am so proud of how well they have worked under trying circumstances. In a very short time—days, not weeks—we had to change our data collection processes to eliminate in-person collection and move to a combination of telephone, internet, and video. We recognize how challenging it is for our survey respondents to provide data during the pandemic, and I am very grateful for their cooperation. Response rates have dipped a bit in some programs, but the quality of our samples remains strong across the board. Despite all of the challenges, BLS has been able to produce all of our economic reports without interruption.

The pandemic has taught us there’s an unlimited appetite for data. The U.S. statistical system is working to satisfy that appetite. At BLS, we strive for more and better data to understand the hardships caused by the pandemic. Starting in May we added new questions to our monthly survey of households. The questions ask whether people teleworked or worked from home because of the pandemic; whether people were unable to work because their employers closed or lost business; whether they were paid for that missed work; and whether the pandemic prevented job-seeking activities. We continue to gather new data from those questions.

We collaborated with our partners at other U.S. statistical agencies to find out how many people received payments from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020. For those who received payments, we asked how they used them.

Soon we will have new data about how businesses have responded to the pandemic. These data are from a brand new survey that seeks to identify changes to business operations, employment, workforce flexibilities, and benefits as a result of the pandemic.

These are just a few examples of how our data collection has responded to the pandemic. Good data are essential for identifying problems, guiding policymakers, and gauging whether and how fast conditions improve for workers, jobseekers, families, and businesses.

Labor Day is a good time to reflect on where we are. Despite these difficult times, I hope you are able to enjoy the long holiday weekend. Take a moment to look at some fast facts we’ve compiled on the current picture of our labor market.

Working

Our monthly payroll survey shows that employment had been increasing through February 2020. With March came the pandemic and the job losses related to it. We lost more than 22 million jobs in March and April and then regained about 48 percent of them in May, June, July, and August.

The employment–population ratio was 56.5 percent in August. This ratio is the number of people employed as a percent of the population age 16 and older. The ratio was 61.1 percent in February.

There were 7.6 million people working part time for economic reasons in August 2020. These are people who would have preferred full-time employment but were working part time because their hours had been reduced or they were unable to find full-time jobs. This number was down from 10.9 million in April. The number was 4.3 million in February.

Not Working

The unemployment rate reached 14.7 percent in April 2020. That was the highest rate, and the largest over-the-month increase, in the history of the data back to January 1948. The rate has fallen since then, reaching 8.4 percent in August. The rate was 3.5 percent back in February, the lowest since 1969.

We have noted the challenges of measuring unemployment during this pandemic. The rates we have seen since March likely understate unemployment, but the trend is clear. The rate rose sharply in March and even more sharply in April and has trended down since April.

Among the major worker groups in August 2020, the unemployment rate was 8.4 percent for adult women and 8.0 percent for adult men. The rate for teenagers was 16.1 percent. The unemployment rate was 13.0 percent for Blacks or African Americans, 10.7 percent for Asians, 10.5 percent for Hispanics or Latinos, and 7.3 percent for Whites.

Job Openings

On the last business day of June 2020, the number of nonfarm job openings was 5.9 million. That was a decline of 18 percent from June 2019.

The ratio of unemployed people per job opening was 3.0 in June 2020. Since the most recent peak of 4.6 in April 2020, the ratio of unemployed people per job opening declined in May and June. In February 2020, there was 0.8 unemployment person per job opening.

Pay and Benefits

Civilian compensation (wage and benefit) costs increased 2.7 percent in June 2020 from a year earlier. After adjusting for inflation, real compensation costs rose 2.1 percent over the year.

Paid leave benefits are available to most private industry workers. The access rates in March 2019 were 73 percent for sick leave, 79 percent for vacation, and 79 percent for holidays.

In March 2019, civilian workers with employer-provided medical plans paid 20 percent of the cost of medical care premiums for single coverage and 33 percent for family coverage.

Productivity

Labor productivity—output per hour worked—in the U.S. nonfarm business sector grew 2.8 percent from the second quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020. That increase reflects large pandemic-related declines in output (−11.2 percent) and hours worked (−13.6 percent).

Safety and Health

In 2018, there were 5,250 fatal workplace injuries. That was a 2-percent increase from 2017 and was the highest number of fatal work injuries in a decade. It was, however, below the numbers of workplace deaths in the 1990s, when over 6,000 fatalities occurred per year.

There were about 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported in 2018 by private industry employers. This resulted in an incidence rate of 2.8 cases per 100 full-time workers in 2018. The rate is down from 9.2 cases per 100 full-time workers in 1976.

Unionization

The union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions—was 10.3 percent in 2019, down by 0.2 percentage point from 2018. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent.

Total employer compensation costs for private-industry union workers were $48.57 and for nonunion workers $34.16 per employee hour worked in March 2020. The cost of benefits accounted for 40.5 percent of total compensation (or $19.65) for union workers and 28.4 percent (or $9.71) for nonunion workers.

Looking to the Future

We released our latest set of long-term employment projections September 1. We project employment to grow by 6.0 million jobs from 2019 to 2029. That is an annual growth rate of 0.4 percent, slower than the 2009–19 annual growth rate of 1.3 percent. The healthcare and social assistance sector is projected to add the most new jobs, and 6 of the 10 fastest growing occupations are related to healthcare. These projections do not include impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and response efforts. We develop the projections using models based on historical data. The historical data for this set of projections cover the period through 2019, so all input data precede the pandemic. We will continue to examine the effects of the pandemic as we update our projections next year and the years that follow.

From an American worker’s first job to retirement and everything in between, BLS has a stat for that! Want to learn more? Follow us on Twitter @BLS_gov.

Meet Our New Science and Technology Fellow at BLS

Samantha Tyner
Samantha Tyner

Seeing that we are the U.S. Bureau of LABOR Statistics, we go the extra mile to attract the highest quality labor to accomplish our mission. This includes over 2,000 permanent staff scattered around the country. We also partner with state employees on several BLS programs, and we work with contractors and others to get the job done. Further, we look for opportunities to bring in specialized talent to help with some projects, such as the Civic Digital Fellows who joined us this past summer. Today I want to recognize the first-ever Science and Technology Policy Fellow to spend time at BLS — Samantha Tyner.

The Science & Technology Policy Fellowship is a program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). To understand this program in a nutshell, let me quote directly from their website:

“AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships (STPF) provide opportunities to outstanding scientists and engineers to learn first-hand about policymaking and contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in the policy realm. Fellows serve yearlong assignments in the federal government and represent a broad range of backgrounds, disciplines, and career stages. Each year, STPF adds to a growing corps over 3,000 strong of policy-savvy leaders working across academia, government, nonprofits, and industry to serve the nation and citizens around the world.”

This is the first year BLS has worked with AAAS to bring on a Science and Technology Fellow. We are so fortunate that Samantha (Sam) Tyner started in September and will be with us over the next year. Sam, one of about 200 fellows in the current class, earned her Ph.D. in statistics from Iowa State University and was most recently a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence. She is working in the BLS Office of Survey Methods Research (OSMR), focusing on interactive data visualization, text mining, and effective communications to wider audiences.

Let’s find out a little bit about Sam and her fellowship. I asked her what drew her to the federal government. She said she knew pretty early on in graduate school that she didn’t want to go the traditional professor route. She also wasn’t particularly interested in working in one of those internet giants, where the statistics are interesting but the focus is on getting people to click more. She wanted to find ways to use her statistical skills to solve real world problems, and government seemed like a good place for that.

Her first impressions of BLS have been positive. “It’s like hanging out with a bunch of professors, but the staff in OSMR is much more laid back.” One of her current projects involves text mining of BLS mentions on Twitter — what are people saying about us. We’ll use this research to learn how we can better serve our customers.

Another project involves BLS data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. There is so much data each quarter, down to the county level. She is developing an R Shiny app that will graph these data and allow users to do quick searches. I got to see a quick demo — impressive work after only 2 months on the job.

She is an expert in data visualization, so I asked her what she thinks of some of the charts that BLS produces. I think she was a bit reluctant to criticize, but the comment “you do have a lot of bar charts” was very telling. She describes her goal as to “take a sad chart and make it better.” We certainly welcome her guidance and look forward to producing fewer sad charts in the future.

Beyond all the work Sam is doing at BLS, she also provides posts on the AAAS blog, focusing on some practical aspects of her research. A recent blog taps into her expertise on data visualization. She writes about a problem that can sometimes occur when charts provide too much information. We hope we are not making this mistake with BLS charts.

I’m glad that Samantha has gotten a good start to her Fellowship. We are planning to take full advantage of her research and skills to improve BLS products. I asked her what will make this year a success. Her response — a job offer. Maybe at BLS, or at one of many government agencies where she can use her skills. She will be an asset anywhere she goes.

BLS Learns from Civic Digital Fellows

In the few months that I’ve had the pleasure of occupying the Commissioner’s seat at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s been clear that I’m surrounded by a smart, dedicated, and innovative staff who collect and publish high-quality information while working to improve our products and services to meet the needs of customers today and tomorrow. And soon after I arrived, we added to that high-quality staff by welcoming a cadre of Civic Digital Fellows to join us for the summer.

In its third year, the Civic Digital Fellowship program was designed by college students for college students who wanted to put their data science skills to use helping federal agencies solve problems, introduce innovations, and modernize functions. This year, the program brought 55 fellows to DC and placed them in 6 agencies – Census Bureau, Citizenship and Immigration Service, General Services Administration, Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and BLS. From their website:

Civic Digital Fellowship logo describing the program as "A first-of-its-kind technology, data science, and design internship program for innovative students to solve pressing problems in federal agencies."

BLS hosted 9 Civic Digital Fellows for summer 2019. Here are some of their activities.

  • Classification of data is a big job at BLS. Almost all of our statistics are grouped by some classification system, such as industry, occupation, product code, or type of workplace injury. Often the source data for this information is unstructured text, which must then be translated into codes. This can be a tedious, manual task, but not for Civic Digital Fellows. Andres worked on a machine learning project that took employer files and classified detailed product names (such as cereal, meat, and milk from a grocery store) into categories used in the Producer Price Index. Vinesh took employer payroll listings with very specific job titles and identified occupational classifications used in the Occupational Employment Statistics program. And Michell used machine learning to translate purchases recorded by households in the Consumer Expenditure Diary Survey into codes for specific goods and services.
  • We are always looking to improve the experience of customers who use BLS information, and the Civic Digital Fellows provided a leg up on some of those activities. Daniel used R and Python to create a dashboard that pulled together customer experience information, including phone calls and emails, internet page views, social media comments, and responses to satisfaction surveys. Olivia used natural language processing to develop a text generation application to automatically write text for BLS news releases. Her system expands on previous efforts by identifying and describing trends in data over time.
  • BLS staff spend a lot of time reviewing data before the information ends up being published. While such review is more automated than in the past, the Civic Digital Fellows showed us some techniques that can revolutionize the process. Avena used Random Forest techniques to help determine which individual prices collected for the Consumer Price Index may need additional review.
  • Finally, BLS is always on the lookout for additional sources of data, to provide new products and services, improve quality, or reduce burden on respondents (employers and households). Christina experimented with unit value data to determine the effect on export price movements in the International Price Program. Somya and Rebecca worked on separate projects that both used external data sources to improve and expand autocoding within the Occupational Requirements Survey. Somya looked at data from a private vendor to help classify jobs, while Rebecca looked at data from a government source to help classify work tasks.

The Civic Digital Fellows who worked at BLS in summer 2019

Our cadre of fellows has completed their work at BLS, with some entering grad school and the working world. But they left a lasting legacy. They’ve gotten some publicity for their efforts. Following their well-attended “demo day” in the lobby at BLS headquarters, some of their presentations and computer programs are available to the world on GitHub.

I think what most impressed me about this impressive bunch of fellows was the way they grasped the issues facing BLS and focused their work on making improvements. I will paraphrase one fellow who said “I don’t want to just do machine learning. I want to apply my skills to solve a problem.” Another heaped praise on BLS supervisors for “letting her run” with a project with few constraints. We are following up on all of the summer projects and have plans for further research and implementation.

We ended the summer by providing the fellows with some information about federal job opportunities. I have no doubt that these bright young minds will have many opportunities, but I also saw an interest in putting their skills to work on real issues facing government agencies like BLS. I look forward to seeing them shine, whether at BLS or wherever they end up. I know they will be successful.

And, we are already making plans to host another group of Civic Digital Fellows next summer.

Passing the Baton to the New BLS Commissioner

I am pleased to announce that Dr. William Beach has been confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as the fifteenth Commissioner of Labor Statistics.

A highlight of my time as Acting Commissioner was being able to share this blog with you, our customers. This forum allowed me to provide updates on program improvements and concrete examples of how BLS data can help everyone make smart decisions. I hope you check back here often to hear more updates from Commissioner Beach. I learned that this blog is a great vehicle for communicating to you in an informal, but hopefully informative, way. I want to thank the BLS staff who helped keep the blog fresh — without them, it would not have been nearly as interesting!

Finally, I want to use my last post as Acting Commissioner to sincerely and publicly thank all BLS staff. They work tirelessly day in and day out to ensure we provide gold-standard data to the American people. They also share their technical expertise in terms that even I can understand!

I know that all of you join me in extending a warm welcome to Dr. Beach.

Thank you for your continued support,

Bill Wiatrowski