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Topic Archives: Labor Force Characteristics

The Challenges of Seasonal Adjustment during the COVID-19 Pandemic

In a previous edition of Commissioner’s Corner, we described seasonal adjustment, the process BLS and many others use to smooth out increases and decreases in data series that occur around the same time each year. Seasonal adjustment allows us to focus on the underlying trends in the data. Seasonal adjustment works well when seasonal patterns are pretty consistent from year to year. But what about when there are large shocks to the economy, such as natural disasters and the massive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting business closures and stay-at-home orders? Today we’ll look at how BLS addressed this issue.

First, a little background on seasonal adjustment. Here’s an example similar to one we have used before, looking at employment in the construction industry. Construction employment varies throughout the year, mostly because of weather. As the chart shows in the “not seasonally adjusted” line, construction adds jobs in the spring and throughout the summer before it starts to lose jobs when the weather turns colder. The large seasonal fluctuations make it hard to see the overall employment trend in the industry. That makes it harder to study other factors that affect the trend, like changes in consumer demand or interest rates. After seasonal adjustment, the construction industry grew by 1.2 million jobs from the beginning of 2015 to the end of 2019.

Construction employment, 2015–19

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

BLS seasonally adjusts data in several of its monthly and quarterly news releases.

Two Approaches to Seasonal Adjustment

BLS uses one of two approaches to seasonally adjust data in these releases—projected factors or concurrent seasonal adjustment. When we project seasonal adjustment factors, we only use historical data in the models. That means we calculate factors in advance, so they are not influenced by the most recent trends. Concurrent seasonal adjustment uses all the data available, including the most recent month or quarter. As a result, the factors are influenced by recent changes.

Regardless of whether the factors are projected or concurrent, the seasonal adjustment models can be additive or multiplicative. We’ll explain more about that below. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the seasonal adjustment process in different ways depending on how the seasonal factors are calculated.

Approach #1

The Consumer Price Index, Producer Price Indexes, and Employment Cost Index use the projected-factor approach and calculate seasonal factors once a year. BLS staff estimated the 2020 seasonal factors at the beginning of 2020 and have used them throughout the year. When new factors for 2021 and revised historical factors are calculated, BLS will examine the effects of the pandemic on the seasonal adjustment models.

Approach #2

We use a concurrent process to calculate the seasonal factors each month for nonfarm employment estimates for the nation, states, and metro areas, unemployment and labor force estimates for the nation, states, and metro areas, and job openings and labor turnover estimates. Each quarter, BLS also uses a similar concurrent process to calculate seasonal factors for productivity measures and business employment dynamics. This helps create the best seasonal factors when seasonality may shift over time. For example, think of schools letting out for summer a little earlier than they usually do each year, or the changing nature of delivery services because of online shopping. Using the most recent data to calculate seasonal factors helps pick up these changes to seasonality faster than the forecasted method. The risk of using the concurrent process is that it may attribute some of the movement in the estimates to a changing seasonal pattern when it really resulted from a nonseasonal event. BLS also annually examines and revises the historical seasonal factors even if the factors were originally calculated using concurrent adjustment. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the concurrent seasonal adjustment models required limited real-time intervention. Examples of potential reasons for intervention include major events like hurricanes. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual in its severity and duration, so significant intervention was needed.

BLS intervened in several ways to create the highest quality, real-time seasonal factors. The tool we use most often is called outlier detection. We consider outliers not to represent a normal or typical seasonal movement. When we label an observation as an outlier, we don’t use it to inform the seasonal adjustment model. Since economic activity is still being heavily influenced by COVID-19 and efforts to contain it, BLS has detected more outliers. When this happens, concurrent models behave more like projected-factor models because the most recent data are not used to create seasonal factors.

The Local Area Unemployment Statistics program uses another type of intervention, a technique call a level shift. It is used when there is a sudden change in the level of a data series. In this case, level shifts were used over a series of months.

Additive versus Multiplicative Models

As noted earlier, all BLS programs review their seasonal adjustment models each year. One of the steps during this process is to select a model—either additive or multiplicative. We use an additive model when seasonal movements are stable over time regardless of the level of the series. A multiplicative model is better to use when seasonal movements become larger as the series itself increases—that is, the seasonality is proportional to the level of the series. That means a sudden large change in the level of a series, such as the large increase in the number of unemployed people in April 2020, will be accompanied by a proportionally large seasonal effect. BLS did not want this to occur. When there are large shifts in a measure, multiplicative seasonal adjustment factors can result in adjusting too much or too little. In these cases, additive seasonal adjustment factors usually reflect seasonal movements more accurately and have smaller revisions.

Because of the unusual data patterns beginning in March 2020, both the Current Population Survey, which we use to measure unemployment and the labor force, and the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey switched from multiplicative to additive seasonal models for most series and did not wait until the typical yearend model review.

BLS does not produce the weekly data on unemployment insurance. We do, however, compute the seasonal adjustment factors used by the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration for their Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims data. As we recommended, the Employment and Training Administration recently switched from using multiplicative to additive seasonal adjustments.

Our quarterly Labor Productivity and Costs news release uses input data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. Census Bureau, and several BLS programs. Most of the input data are already seasonally adjusted by the source agencies or programs. The productivity program only seasonally adjusts monthly Current Population Survey data on employment and hours worked for about ten percent of workers, mostly the self-employed, who are not included in the monthly data from the Current Employment Statistics survey on nonfarm employment and hours. The productivity program detected outliers in some of the data beginning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and accounted for them in the estimates.

Science and Art

Seasonal adjustment of economic data is a scientific process that involves complex math. But seasonal adjustment also involves some art in addition to science. The art comes in when we use our judgment about outliers in the data or when we decide whether an additive or multiplicative model more closely reflects seasonal variation in economic measures. The art also comes in when we recognize how complicated the world is. During 2020 we have experienced not just a global pandemic but also massive wildfires in several western states, a historic number of hurricanes that made landfall, and other notable events that affect economic activity. Did our seasonal adjustment models properly account for all of these events? I can say we have tried our best with the information we have available. As we gather more data for 2020 and future years, we will continue to examine how we can improve our models to help us distinguish longer-term trends from the seasonal variation in economic activity.

Acknowledgment: Many BLS staff members helped make the technical details in this blog easier to understand, and they all have my gratitude. Three who were especially helpful were Richard Tiller, Thomas Evans, and Brian Monsell.

Construction employment, 2015–19
MonthSeasonally adjustedNot seasonally adjusted

Jan 2015

6,320,0005,953,000

Feb 2015

6,361,0005,962,000

Mar 2015

6,334,0006,051,000

Apr 2015

6,392,0006,300,000

May 2015

6,427,0006,491,000

Jun 2015

6,441,0006,633,000

Jul 2015

6,472,0006,718,000

Aug 2015

6,490,0006,754,000

Sep 2015

6,508,0006,704,000

Oct 2015

6,547,0006,740,000

Nov 2015

6,598,0006,685,000

Dec 2015

6,630,0006,542,000

Jan 2016

6,620,0006,252,000

Feb 2016

6,650,0006,256,000

Mar 2016

6,680,0006,402,000

Apr 2016

6,701,0006,614,000

May 2016

6,691,0006,758,000

Jun 2016

6,702,0006,913,000

Jul 2016

6,736,0006,989,000

Aug 2016

6,737,0006,997,000

Sep 2016

6,768,0006,971,000

Oct 2016

6,798,0006,981,000

Nov 2016

6,819,0006,903,000

Dec 2016

6,821,0006,700,000

Jan 2017

6,847,0006,459,000

Feb 2017

6,889,0006,527,000

Mar 2017

6,909,0006,634,000

Apr 2017

6,916,0006,820,000

May 2017

6,928,0006,998,000

Jun 2017

6,955,0007,169,000

Jul 2017

6,960,0007,212,000

Aug 2017

6,990,0007,248,000

Sep 2017

7,004,0007,201,000

Oct 2017

7,027,0007,208,000

Nov 2017

7,066,0007,147,000

Dec 2017

7,093,0007,004,000

Jan 2018

7,114,0006,729,000

Feb 2018

7,200,0006,840,000

Mar 2018

7,205,0006,933,000

Apr 2018

7,223,0007,129,000

May 2018

7,266,0007,336,000

Jun 2018

7,282,0007,497,000

Jul 2018

7,304,0007,554,000

Aug 2018

7,335,0007,586,000

Sep 2018

7,355,0007,535,000

Oct 2018

7,378,0007,557,000

Nov 2018

7,376,0007,454,000

Dec 2018

7,402,0007,311,000

Jan 2019

7,452,0007,069,000

Feb 2019

7,423,0007,062,000

Mar 2019

7,443,0007,170,000

Apr 2019

7,469,0007,377,000

May 2019

7,478,0007,540,000

Jun 2019

7,497,0007,699,000

Jul 2019

7,504,0007,753,000

Aug 2019

7,508,0007,760,000

Sep 2019

7,524,0007,700,000

Oct 2019

7,541,0007,720,000

Nov 2019

7,539,0007,609,000

Dec 2019

7,555,0007,447,000

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

Celebrating World Statistics Day 2020

At the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we always enjoy a good celebration. We just finished recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month. We are currently learning how best to protect our online lives during National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. We even track the number of paid holidays available to workers through the National Compensation Survey. Today I want to focus on a celebration that happens once every 5 years — World Statistics Day. While there may not be parades, special meals, or department store sales to honor this day, we at BLS and our colleagues worldwide take time out on October 20, 2020, to recognize the importance of providing accurate, timely, and objective statistics that form the cornerstone of good decisions.

United Nations logo for World Statistics Day 2020

World Statistics Day, organized under the guidance of the United Nations Statistical Commission, was first celebrated in October 2010. This year, the third such event, focuses on “connecting the world with data we can trust.” At BLS, the trustworthy nature of our data and processes has been a hallmark of our work since our founding in 1884. Our first Commissioner, Carroll Wright, described our work then as “conducting judicious investigations and the fearless publication of results.” That credo guides us to this day. As the only noncareer employee in the agency, I am surrounded by a dedicated staff of data experts  whose singular mission is to produce the highest-quality data, without regard to policy or politics. BLS and other statistical agencies throughout the federal government strictly follow Statistical Policy Directives that ensure we produce data that meet precise technical standards and make them available equally to all. For nearly 100 years, we have regularly updated our Handbook of Methods to provide details on data concepts, collection and processing methods, and limitations. Transparency remains a hallmark of our work.

The United States has a decentralized statistical system, with numerous agencies large and small spread throughout the federal government. Despite this decentralization, the agencies work together to improve statistical methods and follow centralized statistical guidance. This partnership was recently strengthened by the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which reinforced how the statistical agencies protect the confidentiality of businesses and households that provide data. The Act also designated heads of statistical agencies, like myself, as Statistical Officials for their respective Departments. In my case, my BLS colleagues and I advise other Department of Labor agencies on statistical concepts and processes, while continuing to stay clear of policy discussions and decisions.

World Statistics Day is a global event, so this is a good time to share some examples where BLS participates in statistical activities around the world:

  • We have regular contact with colleagues at statistical organizations around the world. Just recently, I participated in a very long-distance video conference on improvements to the Consumer Price Index. For me, it was 6:00 a.m., and I made sure I had a mug of coffee handy; for my colleagues in Australia, it was 6:00 p.m., and I’m certain their mug had coffee as well.
  • We have a well-established training program for international visitors, focusing on our processes and methods. We hold training sessions at BLS headquarters (or at least we did before the pandemic), we send experts to other countries, and we are exploring virtual training. We are eager to share our expertise and long history.
  • We participate in international panels and study groups, such as those organized by the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and others, with topics ranging from measuring the gig economy to use of social media.
  • We provide BLS data to international databases, highlighting employment, price, productivity and related information to compare with other countries.

And that’s just a taste of how BLS fits into the World of Statistics. As Commissioner, I’ve had the honor to represent the United States in conferences and meetings across the globe. The BLS staff and I also hold regular conversations with statistical officials worldwide. In a recent conversation with colleagues in the United Kingdom, we were eager to learn about each other’s changes in the ways we provide data and analyses to our customers. These interactions expand everyone’s knowledge and keep the worldwide statistical system moving forward.

To celebrate World Statistics Day, I asked some BLS cheerleaders if they would join me in a video message about the importance of quality statistical data. Here’s what they had to say:

In closing, let’s all raise a toast to World Statistics Day, the availability of high-quality and impartial data, and the dedicated staff worldwide who provide new information and analysis every day.

Happy World Statistics Day!

New Recommendations on Improving Data on Contingent and Alternative Work Arrangements

The workplace is changing. We have seen more evidence of that in recent months as workplaces have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, many of us wanted to learn more about telework, flexible work hours, and independent contracting. We also wanted to know more about intermittent or short-term work found through mobile devices, unpredictable work schedules, and other employment relationships we might not think of as traditional. It’s our job at BLS to keep up with these new work relationships and figure out how to measure them.

In 2018, we released data collected in 2017 about people in contingent and alternative work arrangements. Contingent workers are people who do not expect their jobs to last or who report their jobs are temporary. Alternative work arrangements include independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers, and workers provided by contract firms. We also published data in 2018 about electronically mediated work. All of these data reflect the rapidly changing workplace.

Those reports received a lot of attention, but policymakers, employers, researchers, and others told us they want to know more about these nontraditional workers. We need to understand people in jobs that often involve doing short-term tasks, such as ridesharing or data-entry services. Our 2017 survey included a few questions about these arrangements, but this work can be complex and varied. That makes it hard to measure nontraditional work arrangements with just a few questions.

To effectively analyze these hard-to-measure work arrangement, BLS sought out experts on nontraditional work. In 2019, we contracted with the Committee on National Statistics to explore what we should measure if we had the funding to collect and publish more data about these workers. We asked the committee not to recommend changes to the main Current Population Survey, the large monthly survey of U.S. households from which we measure the unemployment rate and other important labor market measures. The committee had free rein, however, to recommend topics we should examine in any future edition of the Contingent Worker Supplement to the Current Population Survey. We also asked the committee to recommend changes to the survey design and methods of data collection if we were to conduct the supplement again.

The Committee on National Statistics is a federally supported independent organization whose mission is to improve the statistical methods and information that guide public policies. The committee moved quickly to form a group of experts on the relevant topics. I asked these experts to review the Contingent Worker Supplement and consider other sources of information on nontraditional work arrangements. The group was impressive and included a former BLS Commissioner, a former Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, and several experts in economics and survey methods. They all volunteered their time to help us improve the Contingent Worker Supplement.

The group held public meetings and a workshop, hearing from experts, data users, and policymakers to understand what data would be the most valuable. At the end of their year-long review, they produced a report with specific recommendations in July of 2020 about measurement objectives and data collection.

BLS thanks the Committee on National Statistics and the expert panel for the time and effort they put into the report. Their recommendations thoughtfully balanced the desire to measure everything about this important topic with the limited time and information survey respondents can give us. In the coming months, we will study the report. It will guide us as we consider how to update the Contingent Worker Supplement to reflect the variety of work arrangements in the U.S. labor market.

Update on the Misclassification that Affected the Unemployment Rate

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.