COVID-19

Miscalculation of unemployment data not easy to fix

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

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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