Tag Archives: Natural disasters

Trying to Understand an Unusual Employment Report

This column is called the Commissioner’s Corner, but I’m just keeping the seat warm until a new Commissioner is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. More often than not I feel like I’m back in school, having to learn new concepts from scratch. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated BLS employees who go out of their way to make sure things are done correctly and are very patient in helping me to learn new things. That certainly was the case with the September 2017 Employment Situation report, released on October 6.

The turnaround time from data collection to processing to publication of most BLS data series is very short. That’s the case with the monthly employment and unemployment information. I first saw the payroll employment information about 48 hours before we would release it, and my reaction isn’t suitable for a G-rated blog. What happened? The employment information looked so much different from the recent trend. Fortunately, some more information from that dedicated staff helped me to understand what was going on.

If you haven’t heard, it’s hurricane season. And several storms affected the United States in August and September. Evacuations, damaged businesses, and damaged homes have a lot of implications, including for the job market. Let me give you my description of what the data reveal, using (I hope) some nontechnical terms.

The monthly Employment Situation release contains information from two separate surveys—a survey of businesses (called the Current Employment Statistics program) and a survey of households (called the Current Population Survey). We get different information from each survey, but over time they typically tell a consistent story. For example, during the 2007–09 recession, the business survey showed a decline in jobs, while the household survey showed an increase in unemployment. A consistent story.

So what happened in September 2017?

The business survey asks how many workers were paid for any time during the payroll period that includes the 12th of September. An important fact to understand is that people who did not receive pay for the payroll period are not counted as employed. In September, the business survey showed that the number of jobs in “food service and drinking places” (let’s call them restaurants) declined by 105,000 from the previous month. That’s very different from the trend, which has shown consistent job gains. Workers in these jobs are typically paid on an hourly basis and don’t get paid if they don’t work. This large decline in restaurant jobs in turn affected the overall number of jobs, which declined by 33,000.

Chart showing over-the-month change in food services and drinking places employment

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

In contrast, the household survey showed an increase in people who were employed and a decrease in the unemployment rate. Once again, it is important to understand definitions. In this survey, people are counted as employed if they had a job but did not work due to bad weather, whether or not they were paid. So those same restaurant workers who were not paid and therefore not counted in the business survey were counted as employed in the household survey.

And the household survey tells us more. In something we call the “bad weather” series, 1.5 million employed Americans were not at work due to bad weather during the week that included September 12. This is the highest number for that series in over 20 years. In contrast, in September 2016 there were only 24,000 people in this category. The number of “bad weather” workers was unusually high because Hurricane Irma happened to fall during the week that included September 12—the reference period for the survey. The figure was much lower for many other major weather events, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, because those events fell outside the reference period for the survey.

Chart showing the number of people each month with a job in nonagricultural industries but were not at work because of bad weather.

Editor’s note: Data for this chart are available at https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU02036012

So what I thought would be a major story turned out to be easily explained by weather events and differing definitions. And it taught me something new about the wide variety of information available from BLS.

One last note. The national information included in the monthly Employment Situation news release does not include data for the U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Data for some territories are included with the State Employment and Unemployment news release, which typically is available a couple weeks after the national data. Want to know about how recent hurricanes have affected BLS data? See our page about Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Over-the-month change in food services and drinking places employment
Month Change
Jan 2014 22,700
Feb 2014 6,500
Mar 2014 61,000
Apr 2014 36,600
May 2014 39,600
Jun 2014 25,000
Jul 2014 13,500
Aug 2014 23,300
Sep 2014 31,400
Oct 2014 24,700
Nov 2014 26,300
Dec 2014 36,400
Jan 2015 17,600
Feb 2015 46,200
Mar 2015 11,600
Apr 2015 37,100
May 2015 33,900
Jun 2015 46,500
Jul 2015 39,700
Aug 2015 26,400
Sep 2015 36,200
Oct 2015 52,900
Nov 2015 30,800
Dec 2015 38,000
Jan 2016 30,000
Feb 2016 28,100
Mar 2016 32,700
Apr 2016 16,900
May 2016 24,600
Jun 2016 21,900
Jul 2016 19,100
Aug 2016 32,300
Sep 2016 20,800
Oct 2016 11,500
Nov 2016 23,700
Dec 2016 14,700
Jan 2017 18,000
Feb 2017 20,600
Mar 2017 27,900
Apr 2017 26,100
May 2017 37,200
Jun 2017 20,500
Jul 2017 52,000
Aug 2017(p) 8,600
Sep 2017(p) -104,700
Footnotes:

(p) = preliminary

You can vote for the BLS hurricane maps!

I recently wrote about the team of BLS staff members who created the new hurricane flood zone maps and tables on the BLS website. The team was selected as a finalist for the NextGov Bold Awards, which recognize public servants who conceive and implement bold ideas for using technology to improve the way government works and serves citizens. NextGov invites you to vote this week for your favorite among 20 Bold Award finalists for the People’s Choice Award. There are two ways you can vote. One is to make your selection on the NextGov website, which describes the excellent work of all the finalists. The other way to vote is through Twitter. Just tag @Nextgov, include the hashtag #BoldAwards, and name your favorite finalist.

I’ve read the descriptions of all the teams and projects that were selected as finalists, and they all deserve to be recognized for their innovation. I am especially proud of the work of the BLS team. They created more than 200 maps that show employment, wages, and establishment counts on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts by flood zone category. This is an important new resource that can aid in preparation and emergency response to storms and in understanding the economic effects of storms.

I urge you to take a few moments this week and see the innovative work that is being done by staff across the federal government—and vote for your favorite.

Accolades for the new BLS hurricane flood zone maps and tables

This week I was delighted to learn that the team of BLS staff members who created the new hurricane flood zone maps and tables on the BLS website has been selected as a finalist for the Nextgov Bold Awards. Back in June I wrote about this important new resource, which shows employment, wages, and establishment counts on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts by flood zone category. Nextgov is an online publication that examines how technology and innovation are transforming the way government agencies serve citizens and perform vital functions. Nextgov is produced by Government Executive Media Group, which publishes Government Executive magazine, a monthly business magazine serving executives and managers in the federal government.

The BLS staff members who have been honored are Peter Smith, Monique Ortiz, Sara Stanley, and David Hiles, along with Sudarshan Jakhu, a staff member of one of our contractors.

The Nextgov Bold Awards recognize individuals who have conceived and implemented bold ideas for using technology to improve the way government works and serves citizens. The BLS team’s nomination was selected by the Nextgov editorial team from nominations sent in by agencies across the entire federal government. In addition to the Bold Award winners, Nextgov will have a People’s Choice Award that will go to the finalist who gets the most votes through an online poll that will be on Nextgov in August. The winners will be announced at the Nextgov Prime conference on September 8–9 in Washington, DC.

I am proud that BLS staff members have been recognized for their innovative work, and I congratulate them and the other finalists for this year’s Nextgov Bold Awards. The statistics BLS produces aren’t just numbers; they tell stories about real people. I view the new BLS hurricane maps and tables as especially important for aiding in preparation and emergency response to storms and for understanding the economic effects of storms after the fact. BLS will continue to highlight this resource throughout the hurricane season, as we did before Hurricane Arthur made landfall around the July 4 holiday just a few weeks ago.

Big Data and new hurricane flood zone maps and tables

The beginning of June marked the beginning of hurricane season. It also saw the release of an important new set of BLS maps and tables showing employment, wages, and establishment counts in hurricane flood zones on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

This new product was developed by the staff of the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW). The QCEW is the BLS “Big Data” program, using 9.2 million reports submitted quarterly by almost every employer in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The QCEW program has been producing maps of economic activity in disaster areas since 2001, when it created zip code maps and tables of lower Manhattan after the events of 9/11. Until now, maps like this were created after an event had already occurred.

Now, BLS is providing information on the potential economic damage for businesses and jobs before a hurricane or other weather event approaches the U.S. coastline.

As part of their work in response to Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, QCEW staff learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains hurricane flood zone maps for most of the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard states. (Some states maintain their own map sets.) The QCEW employer file was matched against the flood maps using geographic information systems software. The matched records were used to create the new maps and tables.

These maps and tables are now available for the public to examine before or after a hurricane. Within BLS, we share the matched records among BLS business surveys for research into the data collection and economic effects of a storm. BLS also provides the matched records to state labor market information offices to use for their statistical analysis and emergency response.

I view this special project as a base for future BLS Big Data projects using the QCEW employer file. This project also is a good example of how BLS is trying to find new ways to combine existing datasets to reveal new insights and products. I invite you to explore this new product and share with me your thoughts on how BLS can do more in the area of Big Data.