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Topic Archives: U.S. Statistical System

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!

Increasing Access and Opportunity: Using Quality Data to Inform Evidence-Based Policy

We have a guest blogger for this edition of Commissioner’s Corner. Savi Swick is a Supervisory Research Analyst in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Symbols representing different types of disabilities

During National Disability Employment Awareness Month each October, there is much to celebrate and reflect upon. It’s a time to reaffirm our commitment to increasing access and opportunity for workers with disabilities and honor the value and talent they add to America’s workforce and economy. And this year’s celebration is doubly essential, marking both 75 years of this observance and helping bring to a close the yearlong commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For researchers like me, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate the importance of data. As a research analyst in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, my thoughts turn to how credible, consistent data are key to delivering on the promise of disability inclusion inherent in the Americans with Disabilities Act, today and into the future.

That’s why we partnered with BLS in 2008 to add six disability-related questions to the monthly Current Population Survey, the official source for estimates on U.S. labor force participation, employment, and unemployment. As a result, monthly data on the employment status of people with disabilities were released for the first time in January 2009—and have been every month since.

In addition, we collaborated with BLS and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Chief Evaluation Office to gather additional data through supplements to the Current Population Survey in May 2012 and July 2019. Through these supplements, we gleaned critical information on barriers to employment, prior work experience, career and financial assistance, requested changes to the workplace, and other related topics from respondents with disabilities.

Today, these data provide reliable, accurate information to a range of stakeholders on a topic of critical importance to America’s families and communities. Most significantly, they help facilitate evidence-based policymaking at the national, state, and local levels.

What exactly is evidence-based policymaking? It’s the simple notion that public policy should be informed by established, objective evidence. While that may seem obvious in principle, the reality is that, absent such evidence, policymakers often make decisions based on assumptions derived from anecdotal evidence, which can be subjective. This can lead to inefficient use of public resources and poor outcomes.

That’s because—and this is what often fascinates data geeks like me—things are not always as they seem. Often, data reveal that what we assume to be true, in fact, may not be true, or at least not the whole truth. This is especially the case for complex, multifaceted issues, such as the employment of people with disabilities.

Increasing access and opportunity requires us to first understand what the barriers to access are and where the opportunities exist. It also requires us to anticipate changes and identify intersections. For example, data from May 2012 and July 2019 supplements pinpointed a lack of transportation as an ongoing barrier to work for many people with disabilities. As a result, the Office of Disability Employment Policy, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Access Board, is engaging disability advocates and private industry to promote more accessible transportation options—especially inclusive autonomous vehicles that can help people with disabilities get to work.

Of course, the employment landscape has shifted this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes it has brought to our workforce and economy compel us to consider what questions we need to ask now to ensure we can meet the needs of workers with disabilities in the years ahead. Already, BLS data are helping us detect trends, especially in the context of different occupations.

In any climate—whether the historically robust economy before the pandemic or one recovering in the wake of unprecedented challenges—quality data helps us serve America’s 15 million working-age people with disabilities better. They also help us deliver on the spirit of the bipartisan 2018 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act. Going forward, with continued support from BLS, the Chief Evaluation Office, and Department of Labor’s Chief Data Officer, we will continue to develop and implement data-driven policies and programs that meet the needs of America’s workers with disabilities, every month of every year.

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.

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.