This page addresses some questions about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on The Employment Situation news release, which presents national estimates from the monthly establishment (Current Employment Statistics, or CES) and household (Current Population Survey, or CPS) surveys.
The questions and answers below are designed to be universally and continually relevant and to direct you to appropriate data. See the monthly impact summaries for a more detailed discussion of that month’s data and topics that are not addressed in the items below.
The household survey reference period is generally the calendar week (Sunday–Saturday) that contains the 12th day of the month. There are occasional exceptions for November and December. In the household survey, people are classified as employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force based on their answers to a series of questions about their activities during the survey reference week.
In the establishment survey, workers who are paid by their employer for all or any part of the pay period including the 12th of the month are counted as employed, even if they were not actually at their jobs. Workers who are temporarily or permanently absent from their jobs and who are not being paid are not counted as employed, even if they continue to receive benefits. The length of the reference period varies across businesses in the establishment survey; one-third of businesses have a weekly pay period, slightly over 40 percent bi-weekly, about 20 percent semi-monthly, and a small amount monthly.
Business births and deaths cannot be adequately captured by the establishment survey as they occur. Therefore, the establishment survey estimates use a model to account for the relatively stable net employment change generated by business births and deaths. Due to the impact of the pandemic, the relationship between the two was no longer stable starting in March 2020. To account for the shifting relationship between business births and deaths, the establishment survey made changes to the birth-death model.
These changes include using a portion of business deaths and births reported by establishments in the estimation process for March final estimates through the current month’s estimates. Business births and deaths are normally excluded from the estimation process. Beginning with estimates for April 2020, BLS also added a regression variable to the model for forecasting net business births and deaths. The regression variable incorporates recent sample information into the model, which typically relies on inputs only available at a lag of several months.
For more information about changes to the net birth-death model, see the establishment survey birth-death model documentation.
Yes. Since March 2020, BLS staff have tested the household survey data for outliers to determine whether any changes are needed to the seasonal adjustment models. When outliers are detected, BLS staff make adjustments to the models used in seasonal adjustment processing to account for them.
Seasonal adjustment factors can be either multiplicative or additive. A multiplicative seasonal effect is assumed to be proportional to the level of the series. A sudden large change in the level of the series will be accompanied by a proportionally large seasonal effect. In contrast, an additive seasonal effect is assumed to be unaffected by the level of the series. In times of relative economic stability, the multiplicative option is generally preferred over the additive option. However, in the presence of a large level shift in a time series, multiplicative seasonal adjustment factors can result in systematic over- or under-adjustment of the series; in such cases, additive seasonal adjustment factors are preferred since they tend to more accurately track seasonal fluctuations in the series and have smaller revisions.
Prior to April 2020, most seasonally adjusted household data series used multiplicative seasonal adjustment factors. In April, the vast majority of series had significant outliers, and BLS staff specified these series as additive. BLS staff specified additional series as additive in later months. In accordance with the household survey’s usual practice, the seasonal adjustment models and factors will be reviewed at the end of the calendar year, when 5 years of seasonally adjusted estimates will be subject to revision.
More information about seasonal adjustment is available in the household survey documentation.
As with all survey-based estimates, household survey estimates are subject to sampling error. When a sample is surveyed, there is a chance that the sample estimates may differ from the true population values they represent. The component of this difference that occurs because samples differ by chance is known as sampling error, and its variability is measured by the standard error of the estimate. There is about a 90-percent chance, or level of confidence, that an estimate based on a sample will differ by no more than 1.6 standard errors from the true population value because of sampling error. BLS analyses are generally conducted at the 90-percent level of confidence.
In general, estimates based on a large number of observations have lower standard errors (relative to the size of the estimate) than estimates based on a small number of observations. Also, estimates of higher magnitude tend to have higher standard errors than estimates of lower magnitude.
Household survey response rates were considerably lower than usual in the first several months of the pandemic. That means household survey estimates were based on fewer observations than in the months before the pandemic. Also, many estimates have substantially different magnitudes than before the pandemic. Both response rates and estimate magnitude affect the standard errors for household survey measures. For example, the 90-percent confidence interval for the over-the-month change in the unemployment rate was +/- 0.4 percentage point in June 2020, compared with +/- 0.2 percentage point in June 2019. The increase in the size of the confidence interval was largely due to the increase in the magnitude of the unemployment rate (11.1 percent in June 2020 versus 3.7 percent in June 2019) rather than to the lower response rate (65 percent in June 2020 versus 82 percent in June 2019). See information about the reliability of estimates in the household survey. (Information about the household survey response rate is presented in the monthly impact summary.)
Yes. Due to the unusual circumstances related to the pandemic, Census Bureau interviewers were given additional guidance prior to collecting data for March 2020 on how to answer the three questions discussed below. The guidance, which interviewers have used each month since March, has not changed over time, although additional examples and materials have been provided. Beginning in June 2020, special instructions were also embedded in the data collection instrument to make them more readily accessible during survey interviews. In all months, instructions were offered only for the three survey questions discussed below. Information was not provided for other survey questions.
The guidance can be summarized as follows:
If someone who usually works full time (35 hours or more per week) reports working 1 to 34 hours during the survey reference week, interviewers ask them the main reason why they worked less than 35 hours. If a person says they were under quarantine or self-isolating due to health concerns, interviewers were instructed to select the category “own illness, injury, or medical problem.” For people who were not ill or quarantined but say that their hours were reduced “because of the coronavirus,” interviewers were instructed to select the category “slack work or business conditions.” An example would be “the store cut back hours during the coronavirus.”
For those who do not work at all during the survey reference week, interviewers ask them the main reason why they were absent from work. If a person says they were under quarantine or self-isolating due to health concerns, interviewers were instructed to select the category “own illness, injury, or medical problem.” For people who were not ill or quarantined but say that they did not work last week “because of the coronavirus,” interviewers were instructed to select the category “on layoff (temporary or indefinite).” Examples include “I work at a sports arena and everything is postponed” or “the restaurant closed for now because of the coronavirus.”
To be classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, a person has either been given a date to return to work by their employer or expects to be recalled to their job within 6 months. (They must also be available to return to work if recalled.) Additional guidance was also provided to household survey interviewers regarding the question “Have you been given any indication that you will be recalled to work within the next 6 months?” If, because of the coronavirus, a person is uncertain when they will be able to return to work and thus is unsure how to answer the question, interviewers were instructed to enter a response of “yes,” rather than “don’t know.” This would allow the individual to be included among the unemployed on temporary layoff. In light of the uncertainty of circumstances related to the pandemic, this unusual step was taken as part of an attempt to classify people who were effectively laid off due to temporary pandemic-related closures among the unemployed on temporary layoff.
Due to the unusual circumstances related to the pandemic, Census Bureau interviewers have been given extensive training about the special guidance issued to them.
Prior to March 2020 data collection, the Census Bureau sent an email to all interviewers with instructions on how to record answers to three questions.
Prior to April 2020 data collection, the Census Bureau sent an email to all interviewers that included the same guidance, but also included more detailed examples and a reference table to aid in coding responses.
Prior to May 2020 data collection, every field supervisor had a conference call with the household survey interviewers they manage. In these conference calls, the supervisors went over the detailed instructions and examples and were available to answer interviewers’ questions.
Prior to June 2020 data collection, field supervisors conducted another conference call to review the guidance issued to the interviewers, and additional training aids were supplied to the interviewers. Special instructions were also embedded in the data collection instrument to make them more readily accessible during survey interviews.
All interviewers were required to complete a newly developed computer-based training prior to July 2020 data collection.
The Census Bureau will continue to monitor how well interviewers are following the guidance and will conduct additional training as necessary.
The most obvious impact of the pandemic is visible in the estimates of employment and unemployment that are highlighted in The Employment Situation news release each month. (A full discussion can also be found in the BLS Commissioner's statement on the Employment Situation. See also data access tools and historical data from the household survey.)
Among the unemployed, the number of people on temporary layoff spiked at the onset of the pandemic and remains above the level before the pandemic. (See additional time series.) However, some workers who were not at work during the entire reference week were not classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, especially in the initial months of the pandemic. Rather, they were classified as employed but absent from work. BLS and Census Bureau analyses of the underlying data suggest that this group included some workers affected by the pandemic who should have been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff. The degree of misclassification was highest in the early months of the pandemic and has been considerably lower in recent months. (See details in item 12 below.)
In addition to the employment and unemployment measures, there are other ways the household survey estimates show impacts of the pandemic on the labor market. For example, there are estimates of the number of people who were absent from work, either for the entire survey reference week or, for certain workers, part of the week. (See item 10.)
The pandemic may have affected the number of hours some people worked during the survey reference week. Some people may have worked during the reference week, but not as many hours as they usually work. Some people may have worked more hours than usual. For example, the number of people working part time for economic reasons rose at the onset of the pandemic, clearly reflecting slack work or business conditions due to the pandemic. Other effects can be seen in the number of people at work part time for noneconomic reasons. (See item 16.)
The number of people not in the labor force who currently want a job has been elevated during the pandemic as the impact of the pandemic likely kept many individuals from engaging in labor market activity. (See item 19.) Beginning in May 2020, the household survey has information on people who did not look for work because of the pandemic. (See item 20.)
Other new questions were added to the household survey in May 2020 to measure the effects of the pandemic on the labor market. These questions ask whether people were unable to work because their employers closed or lost business (see item 18); whether they were paid for that missed work (see item 18); and whether people teleworked or worked from home because of the pandemic (see item 21).
Some people use the terms furlough and layoff interchangeably, and others find them to be distinct. The household survey does not have a formal measure or definition of furlough.
The survey identifies different reasons people are unemployed, including being on temporary layoff. This measure includes people who were “furloughed,” although that is not a term used in the survey questionnaire. (The manual provided to survey interviewers discusses how to code responses from people who report that they are furloughed. This guidance was prepared several years ago and was tailored to the use of “furlough” as a term describing budget-related layoffs, typically among government organizations.)
Unemployed people on temporary layoff are those who:
said they were laid off OR were not at work during the survey reference week because of layoff (temporary or indefinite) or slack work/business conditions
AND who have been given a date to return (or expect to be recalled within the next 6 months)
AND who could have returned to work if they had been recalled (except for their own temporary illness)
Unlike other unemployed people, those on temporary layoff do not need to look for work to be classified as unemployed. Pay status is not a criteria to be unemployed on temporary layoff. People absent from work due to temporary layoff can be classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, whether or not they are paid for the time they are off work.
The monthly household survey does not include any information on whether people on temporary layoff return to their employers. The monthly survey provides a snapshot of the labor market and is not designed to track people’s work experience over time.
The monthly household survey has two measures that show the number of people who missed work during the survey reference week. One addresses people who did not work at all in the reference week (see item 11), and the other addresses people who usually work full time but were at work part time (1 to 34 hours) during the reference week (see item 16).
It is important to note that these household survey data do not reflect all cases of people who missed work during the month. The two measures refer to work missed only during the survey reference week. The data on people who miss part of the week are restricted to instances where people who usually work full time (35 hours or more per week) worked 1 to 34 hours. Thus, a person who usually works 50 hours per week but missed 8 hours would not be included in this measure since they still worked more than 35 hours. Also, this measure does not reflect work missed by people who usually work part time.
For more information about these concepts and links to historical time series, see data on absences from work.
People who say they have a job but were not at work during the survey reference week may be classified as employed or unemployed depending on the reason they missed work. For example, people who missed work due to vacation or illness are classified as employed. People who were temporarily laid off and expecting recall (and available to return to their job if recalled) are classified among the unemployed on temporary layoff. Under the guidance provided to the household survey interviewers, most workers who indicate that they were not working during the entire reference week due to pandemic-related business closures or cutbacks should be classified as unemployed on temporary layoff.
There are many reasons why employed people may not work for the entire survey reference week. BLS tabulates data on employed people not at work whose main reason for being absent was vacation, own illness, childcare problems, other family or personal obligations, labor dispute, bad weather, maternity or paternity leave, school or training, civic or military duty, and other reasons. Vacation and a person’s own illness are typically the most common reasons people are not at work. People who were not at work to care for a sick family member should be counted in the other family or personal obligations category. See past discussions about the reasons people were not at work in the monthly impact summaries for 2020. (See also data on absences from work for more information.)
Since March 2020, the number of employed people included in the not at work for “other reasons” category has been higher than usual. BLS and Census Bureau analyses of the underlying data suggest that this group includes some workers affected by the pandemic who should have been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff. However, the degree of misclassification was highest in the early months of the pandemic. (See item 12.)
Other than those who were themselves ill, under quarantine, or self-isolating due to health concerns, most people who did not work during the survey reference week due to the coronavirus pandemic should have been, and were, classified as unemployed on temporary layoff. However, since March 2020, some people who were not at work during the entire reference week for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic were not included in this category but were instead misclassified as employed but not at work for other reasons.
Such a misclassification is an example of nonsampling error and can occur when respondents misunderstand questions or interviewers record answers incorrectly. (A similar misclassification occurred with federal workers in both the 2013 and 2019 partial federal government shutdowns.)
The misclassification hinges on a question about the main reason people were absent from their jobs. If people who were absent due to temporary, pandemic-related business closures or cutbacks were recorded as absent due to “other reasons,” they could have been misclassified. According to special guidance provided to interviewers, most people absent due to temporary, pandemic-related business closures or cutbacks should be recorded in the “on layoff (temporary or indefinite)” category. (This response option is generally not available for people identified as business owners.)
Recording these answers as “on layoff (temporary or indefinite)” ensures that people are asked the follow-up questions needed to classify them as unemployed, although it does not necessarily mean they are classified as unemployed on temporary layoff. People unemployed on temporary layoff must have been given a date to return to work (or expect to be recalled within the next 6 months) and also be available to return if recalled (except for their own temporary illness).
The degree of misclassification was highest in the early months of the pandemic and has been considerably lower in recent months. Census Bureau training on this question improved interviewers’ understanding of the special instructions. When interviewers record a response of “other reason,” they also add a few words describing that other reason. BLS and Census Bureau staff extensively reviewed these brief descriptions and found that the share of responses that may have been misclassified was much smaller after the initial months of the pandemic.
According to usual practice, the data from the household survey are accepted as recorded. To maintain data integrity, no ad hoc actions are taken to reassign survey responses to the labor force questions.
The exact extent of the misclassification is unknown.
The obvious indication of misclassification is the number of people not at work for other reasons. This measure was highest in the early months of the pandemic, both in the number of people and as a percentage of the total not at work. For example, the number of people not at work for “other reasons” fell from 8.1 million in April 2020 to 1.4 million in September 2020. Even with this decline, the number of people not at work for “other reasons” remained higher than usual. (Before the pandemic, the number of people in this category averaged 620,000 for April 2016–2019 and 590,000 for September 2016–2019.) The difference between the current number and the average for the same month in years prior to the pandemic has been used to estimate the potential size of the misclassification. (See item 14.) While the exact extent of the misclassification is unknown, this represents the upper bound of our estimate of misclassification.
It is important to realize that not everyone included in the “other reasons” category is necessarily misclassified. The category includes people who mention reasons other than those related to the pandemic. Moreover, the “on layoff (temporary or indefinite)” response option is not available for business owners who have no other job, so the “other reasons” category could be the appropriate category for them. Business owners who are not at work due to economic downturns (or in this case, pandemic-related business closures or cutbacks) should be classified as employed but absent from work for “other reasons.” Business owners are classified as employed because it is assumed that they have a job to return to even if their businesses are not able to currently function or if the business lacks customers; they can engage in some work activity related to maintaining the operation of that business.
BLS is continuing to evaluate the misclassification issue and will publish a detailed description of the findings in a forthcoming article.
If the misclassified workers who were recorded as employed but not at work for the entire survey reference week had been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate would have been higher than reported. Each month since March 2020, BLS has presented a calculation that includes the upper bound of the estimate of potentially misclassified workers among the unemployed in the monthly impact summary that accompanies The Employment Situation news release. This kind of exercise requires some assumptions. For example, first one needs to determine how many workers might be misclassified. (See item 13.)
Because the exact extent of the misclassification is unknown, we had to make assumptions to construct these estimates. Specifically, we assumed that all of the increase in the number of employed people who were not at work for other reasons compared with the average for the same month in recent years was due solely to misclassification. We also assumed that all of these people expected to be recalled and were available to return to work.
Following this approach, for example, there were 1.4 million workers with a job but not at work who were included in the “other reasons” category in September 2020, about 773,000 higher than the pre-pandemic average for September 2016–2019. If we assume that this 773,000 increase was entirely due to misclassification and that all of these misclassified workers expected to be recalled and were available for work, the number of unemployed people in September (on a not seasonally adjusted basis) would increase from 12.3 million to 13.1 million. The number of people in the labor force would remain at 160.1 million in September (not seasonally adjusted) as people move from employed to unemployed but stay in the labor force. The resulting unemployment rate for September would be 8.2 percent (not seasonally adjusted), compared with the official estimate of 7.7 percent (not seasonally adjusted). Estimates of people with a job but not at work are not available on a seasonally adjusted basis, so seasonally adjusted data, such as the unemployment rate mentioned in The Employment Situation news release, are not used in this exercise. (Repeating this exercise, but combining the not seasonally adjusted data on additional people with a job but not at work in the other reasons category with the seasonally adjusted estimates for unemployed people and the labor force for September yields 8.3 percent, compared with the official seasonally adjusted rate of 7.8 percent.) See the calculations in the monthly impact summaries for other months.
These broad assumptions represent the upper bound of our estimate of misclassification—the largest estimate of unemployment and correspondingly the highest unemployment rate. However, these assumptions probably overstate the size of the misclassification error. It is unlikely that everyone who was misclassified expected to be recalled and was available to return to work. It is also unlikely that all of the increase in the number of employed people not at work for “other reasons” was due to misclassification. Some people may be correctly classified in the “other reasons” category. For example, someone who owns a business (and does not have another job) is classified as employed in the household survey.
Regardless of the assumptions made as to the degree of misclassification, the trend in the unemployment rate is the same—for example, the rate increased in March and April and eased in later months.
BLS is continuing to evaluate the misclassification issue and will publish a detailed description of the findings in a forthcoming article.
The misclassification hinges on a question about the main reason people were absent from their jobs. While some workers classified as absent from work for other reasons may have been misclassified, there is no easy correction that could have been made to the data to count these individuals as unemployed. Changing a person’s labor force classification would involve more than changing the response to the question about why people were absent from their jobs.
Although BLS and the Census Bureau believe some responses to the question on why people were absent from their jobs may have been incorrectly recorded, we do not have enough information to reclassify each person’s labor force status. To begin with, the exact information provided by the person responding to the survey is not known. The brief descriptions included in the “other reasons” category often appear to go against the guidance provided to the survey interviewers, but these descriptions are not full transcripts of the interaction between the interviewer and the person responding to the survey.
Also, people whose answers were recorded as absent from work for “other reasons” were not asked the follow-up questions needed to determine whether they should be classified as unemployed. Specifically, there is no information about whether they expected to be recalled to work and whether they could return to work if recalled. Therefore, shifting people’s answers from “other reasons” to “on layoff (temporary or indefinite)” would not have been enough to change their classification from employed to unemployed. Assumptions would have had to be made about how they would have responded to the follow-up questions. Changing answers based on incorrect assumptions would also have introduced error.
For the reasons above, the exact extent of the misclassification is unknown. In addition, BLS’s usual practice is to accept data from the household survey as recorded. In the 80-year history of the household survey, we do not know of any actions taken on an ad hoc basis to change respondents’ answers to the labor force questions. Any ad hoc adjustment would have relied on assumptions instead of being strictly based on what people answered during their interviews and also could appear to be a manipulation of the data.
The number of people working part time for economic reasons rose at the onset of the pandemic, clearly reflecting slack work or business conditions due to the pandemic. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been reduced or they were unable to find full-time jobs. (This group includes people who usually work full time and people who usually work part time.) This measure is highlighted in The Employment Situation news release each month. See additional information on people working part time for economic reasons, including historical time series and monthly tables.
Employed people who usually work full time (35 hours or more per week) but indicated that they had worked fewer than 35 hours in the survey reference week are asked the reason they worked part time that week. Depending on the reason provided, these workers are then grouped into those at work part time for economic or noneconomic reasons. Economic reasons include working reduced hours due to slack work or business conditions, seasonal work, or starting or ending a job during the week. Noneconomic reasons include illness, vacation, holidays, schooling, childcare problems, labor dispute, bad weather, and other reasons. See data on absences from work for more information, including historical time series and monthly tables.
Monthly tables show information on employment and unemployment by occupation. (In particular, see table A-19 for employment and table A-30 for unemployment rates.) Time series estimates of employment and unemployment by occupation are also available in our database.
These occupation data are not seasonally adjusted. Users are generally cautioned against over-the-month comparisons of not seasonally adjusted data, as the change could be affected by some regularly occurring seasonal component, such as students seeking jobs in the summer months or holiday hiring. Additionally, changes in the classification of occupations complicate comparisons over time.
New questions were added to the household survey in May 2020 to measure the effects of the pandemic on the labor market, including whether people were unable to work because their employers closed or lost business and whether they were paid for that missed work. See supplemental data measuring the effects of the pandemic on the labor market.
All people were asked if, at any time in the last 4 weeks, they were unable to work because their employer closed or lost business due to the coronavirus pandemic. This question was designed to include both those who did not work at all and those who worked fewer hours. People who reported that they were unable to work were asked if they received any pay from their employer for the hours they did not work in the last 4 weeks.
These data do not include all people who were unable to work because of the pandemic. The fact that someone is employed at the time of the survey does not necessarily mean they are working for the same employer that closed or lost business. Also, no information was collected about how much pay people received, such as whether they were paid for all of the time not worked. Learn more about the concepts and limitations of these data.
People are categorized as either employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force based on how they respond to survey questions about their recent activities. People who have a job are employed, including those who may be temporarily absent (whether or not they are paid). People who do not have a job and are actively looking for and available for work are unemployed. People who do not have a job and are on layoff and expecting to be recalled to their job do not need to look for work to be counted as unemployed, but they do need to be able to return to work if recalled. Those who do not meet the criteria to be classified as either employed or unemployed are not in the labor force.
Among those not in the labor force, the survey identifies people who want a job. This measure has been higher than in the months before the pandemic, reflecting the impact of pandemic-related business closures or cutbacks and concerns about the coronavirus that have kept many individuals from engaging in labor market activity. Monthly table A-38 shows people not in the labor force by their desire and availability for work (not seasonally adjusted). See additional information on people not in the labor force, including those who want a job.
The unemployed are people who are actively looking for work or those on temporary layoff expecting to be recalled to work. Because of the importance of job search in the definition of unemployment, BLS added a supplemental question to the monthly household labor force survey to identify people who did not look for work because of the pandemic.
Beginning in May 2020, people not in the labor force are asked “Did the coronavirus pandemic prevent you from looking for work in the last 4 weeks?” The number of people not in the labor force who did not look for work because of the pandemic is highlighted in The Employment Situation news release. More information is published each month in supplemental data tables 9 and 10.
See also other information on people not in the labor force.
The household survey does not routinely ask about teleworking. However, a supplemental question on whether people teleworked or worked from home because of the pandemic was added to the household survey in May 2020. See supplemental data on people who teleworked because of the pandemic.
These data refer to employed people who teleworked or worked at home for pay at some point in the last 4 weeks specifically because of the coronavirus pandemic. People did not have to telework for the entire time that they worked to be counted among those who telework. By design, people whose telework was unrelated to the pandemic, such as employed people who worked entirely from home before the pandemic, should not be included in this measure.
Microdata from the household survey are available from the Census Bureau. The Census Bureau generally makes a microdata file available on the Wednesday following the publication of The Employment Situation news release. (See the news release schedule.) You can also obtain the microdata through the Census Bureau’s Microdata Access Tool, where data are generally available on the Thursday following publication. The new supplemental COVID-19 questions are in separate microdata files. Personally identifiable information is removed from all household survey public use microdata.
BLS monthly surveys do not have information on the enrollment of children or the operating status of schools. Annual average estimates of employed parents (for 2019) are available in table 5 of the annual news release on the Employment Characteristics of Families from the household survey.
Every week, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) reports the number of people filing initial and continued claims for UI benefits. Individuals file initial claims to request a determination of basic eligibility for the UI program. A continued claim is filed after an initial claim to receive benefits for a particular week of unemployment. Because the UI claims data are weekly series, they can capture the impact of economic shocks more quickly than the BLS monthly household and establishment surveys, particularly when these shocks hit between survey reference periods.
Data users must be cautious about trying to compare or reconcile the UI claims data with the official unemployment figures derived from the household survey. The unemployment data gathered through the household survey in no way depend upon the eligibility for or receipt of UI benefits. There are conceptual, coverage, and scope differences between the two data sources.
In many cases, UI claims data exclude people who would be identified as unemployed in the household survey. For example, the UI claims data generally exclude:
In other cases, the UI claims data include people who would not meet the household survey definition of unemployed. Some regular state UI programs allow individuals to collect partial benefits when their work hours have been reduced. These working people would be classified as employed in the household survey, and many might be included among those working part time for economic reasons, a category of workers that grew considerably at the onset of the pandemic.
In addition, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, specifically the Division D-Emergency Unemployment Insurance Stabilization and Access Act of 2020, signed into law on March 18, 2020, allowed state UI programs to temporarily modify or suspend the “actively seeking work” requirement in response to the pandemic. With the exception of those unemployed on temporary layoff, people without a job who are not actively seeking work are not classified as unemployed in the household survey. Rather, they are classified as not in the labor force.
Thus, the number of claimants in the regular state UI programs includes both people who would be considered employed and people who would be considered not in the labor force in the household survey. ETA’s weekly claims report does not include information on whether claimants are collecting partial benefits or actively seeking work.
With respect to geographic scope, the U.S. totals published by ETA include claims reported by Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both of which maintain regular state UI programs. The household survey covers the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and does not include Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands.
Furthermore, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law March 27, 2020, created two new programs for unemployment compensation in response to the coronavirus pandemic. These programs are Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC). The PUA program provides for up to 39 weeks of benefits to individuals who are self-employed, seeking part-time employment, or otherwise would not qualify for or have exhausted all rights to regular unemployment compensation, extended benefits, or PEUC. The PEUC program provides for up to 13 weeks of benefits to individuals who have exhausted or have no rights to regular benefits and who are able, available, and actively seeking work. Additionally, states must offer flexibility in meeting the “actively seeking work” requirement if individuals are unable to search for work because of illness, quarantine, or movement restriction.
The number of people claiming benefits under these new programs are listed in ETA’s UI weekly claims report separately from the number of people claiming benefits under the regular state UI programs, with a one-week lag. As with the regular state UI programs, claimants under these new programs would cut across the household survey classifications of employed, unemployed, and not in the labor force.
Learn more about how the household survey measures unemployment.
People do not need to receive UI benefits to be classified as unemployed in the household survey. Likewise, not all people who receive UI benefits would be classified as unemployed in the household survey. Under normal circumstances, the conceptual, coverage, and scope differences tend to cause the household survey estimate of unemployed people to be larger than the number of individuals claiming benefits in UI programs. (See the explanation in item 24 and a comparison of household survey data and UI counts.) For example, there were 6.2 million unemployed people in February 2020, compared with 2.1 million continued claimants under the regular state UI programs for the week ending February 15th (both not seasonally adjusted). (See UI “insured unemployment” for continued claims as published March 12, 2020.)
However, the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain it resulted in a severe curtailment of economic activity. In response to this, there were unprecedented expansions of UI programs and eligibility for benefits. Under these unique circumstances, the relative relationship between unemployment as measured by the household survey and recipients of unemployment compensation changed.
For example, there were 18.1 million unemployed people in June 2020, compared with 17.9 million continued claimants under the regular state UI programs for the week ending June 13th (both not seasonally adjusted). (See UI “insured unemployment” for continued claims as published June 25, 2020.) In addition, the two new programs (see item 24) add many more people not included in the regular state UI program estimates, but are reported at a lag. For the week ending June 6th, PUA and PEUC claimants numbered 11.0 million and 852,000, respectively. The total number of people claiming benefits in all programs for the week ending June 6th was 30.6 million (as published June 25, 2020).
The establishment and household surveys do not have information on businesses participating in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or on workers who receive payments through this program. We do not know how many people are working because of this program.
In the establishment survey, if employees receive pay for any part of the reference pay period, they are counted as employed. If they do not receive pay, they are not counted. The establishment survey does not determine what funds are used to pay employees.
The household survey does not ask about the Paycheck Protection Program (or program participation in general) in the basic monthly labor force questionnaire. No specific guidance was provided to survey interviewers, and no specific determination was made to categorically classify people in the survey based on whether or not they receive payments from this program.
Last Modified Date: April 2, 2021