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Miscalculation of unemployment data not easy to fix

Andy Uhler Jul 1, 2020
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Hundreds of unemployed Kentucky residents wait in long lines for help with unemployment claims in June. John Sommers II/Getty Images
COVID-19

Miscalculation of unemployment data not easy to fix

Andy Uhler Jul 1, 2020
Heard on:
Hundreds of unemployed Kentucky residents wait in long lines for help with unemployment claims in June. John Sommers II/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

We should know more about the national unemployment picture on Thursday, when the Labor Department releases its monthly jobs report. Most economists are expecting unemployment to drop for the second month in a row, but the data might not be as accurate as we’d like. 

That’s partly because since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has said it might be undercounting the number of workers classified as “unemployed on temporary layoff” — furloughed workers, in other words. 

The Labor Department calculates the number of jobs added or lost along with the unemployment rate by calling up a representative group of Americans and asking them about their employment status. The department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said it is now providing more training and new instructions to the people asking the questions. 

“What we have is a coding problem,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM. But he added that the problem isn’t like the kind of coding that goes into software.

“We have individuals interviewing people who say, ‘Well, I’m a stadium worker, but there’s no work.’ They were classified as employed when they should have been classified as unemployed,” he said.

Turns out it’s a really confusing situation, both for the questioners and those answering them.

“If you get called up and you’re asked, ‘Are you employed?’ it’s a good question,” said Michael Pearce at Capital Economics. “If you’re a restaurant manager and your restaurant should be reopening, but you’re not sure when, it really is an open question, you know? Am I employed or not?”

Pearce said he doesn’t think simple training is going to make answering that question much easier.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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