Tag Archives: Natural disasters

Ensuring Gold-Standard Data in the Eye of a Storm

“Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were the most notable storms of 2017, leaving paths of death and destruction in their wake.”
Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project 2017 summary report

Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project is forecasting the 2018 hurricane season activity (as of May 31) to be average, with 13 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes expected. Is BLS ready?

How does BLS deal with hurricanes?

Since June starts hurricane season, we want to share with you one example of how last year’s storms affected our data. We present a case study using our national employment survey, the Current Employment Statistics program. This program provides monthly estimates we publish in The Employment Situation—sometimes called the “jobs report.”

We have procedures to address natural disasters. We highlight some of our challenges and how we address them. We do everything possible to provide you with gold-standard data to help you make smart decisions!

2017 Hurricane Destruction

Two major hurricanes—Harvey and Irma—blasted the U.S. mainland in August and September 2017. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands later in September.

  • Harvey first made landfall in Texas on August 25. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared 39 Texas counties eligible for federal disaster assistance after Harvey. Harvey also caused heavy damage in Louisiana.
  • Irma hit the Florida Keys on September 10 and then later hit Florida’s southern coast. FEMA declared 48 Florida counties eligible for federal disaster assistance. Before Irma hit the lower Florida Keys, the hurricane already had caused severe damage in St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico.
  • Hurricane Maria made landfall in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, September 20, causing catastrophic damage. These areas already had suffered damage from Hurricane Irma earlier in the month.

Some things to know about the monthly employment survey

The monthly employment survey is a sample of nonfarm businesses and government agencies. The reference period is the pay period that includes the 12th of the month. The sample has just over 23,000 active reporting units in the disaster areas, representing about 6 percent of the entire active sample.

What does it mean to be employed? If the employer pays someone for any part of the reference pay period, that person is counted as employed.

How did BLS collect data in these disaster areas?

Our biggest challenge is to collect representative sample data so we publish high-quality estimates. In the “old days,” the survey was a mail survey (yes, I mean snail mail), but no more! Now we collect data electronically by several different methods. These are the most common:

  • About half the total sample uses electronic data interchange. That’s a centralized electronic data reporting system for multi-establishment firms. The firm provides an electronic file directly from their payroll system to BLS for all establishments included in the report. Most of the firms reporting are outside of the hurricane-affected areas, although they may report on establishments within the affected areas.
  • About 23 percent of establishments use computer-assisted telephone interviews.
  • Another 16 percent report using our Internet Data Collection Facility.

Using these methods, we were able to collect data from most sampled businesses in these areas using normal procedures.

What about the emergency workers working in the disaster areas? How are they counted?

  • We count emergency workers where their employer is located, not where they are working.
  • We don’t count volunteers as employed because they are not paid.
  • Activated National Guard troops are considered active duty military and are outside the scope of the survey.

Did the estimation procedures change?

Once we collect the data from businesses in the affected areas, we consider whether we need to change our estimation procedures to adjust for missing data. The survey staff determined that we didn’t need to change our methods because the collection rates in the affected areas were within normal ranges.

How did the hurricanes affect national employment data for September 2017?

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reduced the estimate of national payroll employment for September 2017. We can’t measure the effects precisely because the survey is not designed to isolate the effects of catastrophic events. National nonfarm employment changed little (+14,000) in September 2017, after increasing by an average of 189,000 per month over the prior 12 months. A steep employment decline in food services and drinking places and below-trend growth in some industries likely reflected the impact of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

What about Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands?

National nonfarm employment estimates do not include Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Because of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could not conduct normal data collection for their establishment surveys. The September estimates for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were delayed. The October and November estimates for the Virgin Islands also were delayed. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands eventually were able to produce estimates for September, October, and November 2017.

Want more information?

For more information on the impact of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, check out these pages:

What else does BLS know about hurricanes?

The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages produces maps of businesses and employment in flood zones for states on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts that are vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storm. You can read more about those maps in another recent blog.

We hope the 2018 hurricane season won’t bring the loss of life and destruction of property that we saw in 2017. Regardless of what the season brings, BLS will be ready to continue providing gold-standard data about the labor market and economy.

BLS Big Data Delivers Hurricane Flood Zone Maps

Information is key to preparing for a natural disaster. That’s why we have updated our maps of businesses and employment in flood zones for states on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts that are vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms.

These maps combine data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages with the most up-to-date information from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Geological Survey. The result is high-resolution graphics for every county with hurricane flood zones along or inland from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages is our “Big Data” program. It gathers data from 9.9 million reports that almost every employer in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands files each quarter. We have been producing maps of businesses and employment in disaster areas since 2001, when we created zip code maps and tables of Lower Manhattan. We began mapping hurricane zones in 2014, combining BLS data with flood zones created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state emergency management agencies.

These maps are one way we use Big Data to create new products without increasing the burden on our respondents. Within BLS, we use these maps for research into the data collection and economic effects of a storm. We also provide these maps to state labor market information offices to use for their statistical analysis and emergency response.

Hurricane maps highlight how we use emerging technologies. We create these maps with open source mapping software, part of our open data practices that make it easier for decision makers to get and use the data.

This isn’t our only example of matching Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages data with data from other federal agencies to deliver new insights. We have matched our data with publicly available Internal Revenue Service data to measure employment and wages in nonprofit organizations. We also are working with our colleagues at the Bureau of Economic Analysis to improve understanding of foreign direct investment in the United States. When these data become available, users can analyze employment and wages by industry and occupation in firms with and without foreign direct investment.

All of these efforts improve the quality and breadth of information available for decision makers. If you have ideas about other partnerships with our Big Data team, please send us a message or give us a call!

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.