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Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic and Response on the Employment Situation News Release

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.

Additional detail for states and metropolitan areas is available in separate news releases with data from the CES State and Metro Area and the Local Area Unemployment Statistics programs.

Monthly Employment Situation news releases and COVID-19 impact summaries

Questions

  1. Household and establishment surveys: What is the reference period for the two surveys?
  2. Establishment survey: Where can I learn more about methodological changes to the birth-death model?
  3. Establishment survey: Where can I find information about job gains and losses by earnings?
  4. Household survey: Were there modifications to the seasonal adjustment methodology for the household survey?
  5. Household survey: Were there any changes to measures of error for household survey estimates?
  6. Household survey: Were interviewers provided with any special guidance?
  7. Household survey: How were interviewers trained about the special guidance?
  8. Household survey: How does the pandemic response appear in household survey estimates?
  9. Household survey: What’s the difference between a furlough and a layoff?
  10. Household survey: How are people who were absent from their jobs counted in the household survey?
  11. Household survey: What do we know about why people were at work part time?
  12. Household survey: Where can I find employment and unemployment by occupation?
  13. Household survey: How many people want a job, but are not classified as unemployed?
  14. Household survey: How many people teleworked because of the pandemic?
  15. Household survey: What other information is available about how people were affected by the pandemic?
  16. Household survey: When are the household survey microdata files available?
  17. How many working people have to take care of children who cannot go to school?
  18. How are these data different from the unemployment insurance (UI) claims data?
  19. How can unemployment insurance (UI) claims be larger than the number of unemployed people?
  20. How are workers under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) treated in these data?

1. Household and establishment surveys: What is the reference period for the two surveys?

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.

2. Establishment survey: Where can I learn more about methodological changes to the birth-death model?

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 to 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.

3. Establishment survey: Where can I find information about job gains and losses by earnings?

See the establishment survey charts on employment change and average hourly or weekly earnings by industry.

4. Household survey: Were there modifications to the seasonal adjustment methodology for the household survey?

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.

5. Household survey: Were there any changes to measures of error for household survey estimates?

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.

The relatively low response rate during the pandemic—meaning that household survey estimates were based on fewer observations than in the months prior to the pandemic—has increased standard errors for most measures. However, many estimates had substantially different magnitudes than in prior months, which also had an effect on standard errors. 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. 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.)

6. Household survey: Were interviewers provided with any special guidance?

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.

7. Household survey: How were interviewers trained about the special guidance?

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 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 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 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 data collection.

The Census Bureau will continue to monitor how well interviewers are following the guidance and will conduct additional training as necessary.

8. Household survey: How does the pandemic response appear in household survey estimates?

The most obvious impact of the pandemic response 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.)

In addition to the employment and unemployment measures, there are other ways the household survey can show impacts of the pandemic response on the labor market. For example, it can identify some 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. For example, 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 response. Other effects can be seen in the number of people at work part time for noneconomic reasons. (See item 11.)

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 13.)

9. Household survey: What’s the difference between a furlough and a layoff?

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 were off work.

We publish a table with recent information about unemployed people on temporary layoff; historical data are available from our database.

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.

10. Household survey: How are people who were absent from their jobs counted in the household survey?

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, and the other addresses people who usually work full time but were at work part time (1 to 34 hours) during the reference week.

First, the household survey can identify people who had a job but were not at work for the entire reference week due to reasons like their own illness, vacation, or taking care of a family member. Information about people not at work is presented in the monthly impact summary, as relevant.

People who have a job but were not at work may be classified as employed or unemployed depending on the reason they missed work. For example, people who missed work due to vacation, illness, parental leave, or bad weather 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 efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus should be classified as unemployed on temporary layoff.

Second, the household survey provides a measure of the number of people who usually work full time (35 hours or more per week) but were at work part time (1 to 34 hours) during the survey reference week. Usual full-time workers may work part time during the reference week for a number of reasons. For example, some full-time workers may be working reduced hours due to slack work or business conditions; others may take time off for an illness, childcare problems, or other reasons.

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.

11. Household survey: What do we know about why people were at work part time?

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 response. 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.

12. Household survey: Where can I find employment and unemployment by occupation?

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.

13. Household survey: How many people want a job, but are not classified as unemployed?

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 the months prior to the pandemic, reflecting the impact of mandatory business closures, stay-at-home orders, 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. Information about people who want a job is presented in the monthly impact summary.

See also supplemental data on people who were prevented from looking for work because of the pandemic. (These data are not available at the same time as the household survey estimates presented in the Employment Situation news release.)

14. Household survey: How many people teleworked because of the pandemic?

The household survey does not routinely ask about teleworking. However, a 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 are not available at the same time as the household survey estimates presented in the Employment Situation news release.)

15. Household survey: What other information is available about how people were affected by the pandemic?

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 teleworked or worked from home because of the pandemic; whether people were unable to work because their employers closed or lost business; whether they were paid for that missed work; and whether the pandemic prevented job-seeking activities. See supplemental data measuring the effects of the pandemic on the labor market. (These data are not available at the same time as the household survey estimates presented in the Employment Situation news release.)

16. Household survey: When are the household survey microdata files available?

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. Personally identifiable information is removed from all household survey microdata.

17. How many working people have to take care of children who cannot go to school?

BLS does not have monthly estimates of employed parents, nor do we have data that reflect school closures. 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.

18. How are these data different from the unemployment insurance (UI) claims data?

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:

  • Unemployed people who exhausted their benefits without finding work
  • Unemployed people who have not yet earned benefit rights because they have not met their state’s work and wage requirements, such as new entrants and reentrants to the labor force
  • Unemployed people who voluntarily quit their previous jobs
  • Unemployed people who were fired for cause from their previous jobs
  • Otherwise eligible unemployed people who either delay filing for benefits or choose not to file for benefits

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 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.

19. How can unemployment insurance (UI) claims be larger than the number of unemployed people?

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 18 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 has 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 18) 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).

20. How are workers under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) treated in these data?

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: August 7, 2020