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.
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.
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.
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.
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