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The concept of a national time use survey arose in 1991, when it was first discussed at BLS as a statistical policy issue. Development of the idea continued until American Time Use Survey (ATUS) data collection officially began in January 2003. Early interest in time-use data appeared with a bill that was proposed (but never passed) in Congress in 1991: the Unremunerated Work Act. At the time, Congress expressed interest in collecting data on unpaid labor, with BLS and the Bureau of Economic Analysis collaborating to collect and analyze the data. Through the early 1990s, BLS began to see the absence of time-use data as a gap in the U.S. Federal Statistical System, as conferences hosted by Statistics Canada and the United Nations featured data on international efforts to incorporate time-use measures into official statistics or national accounts.
In 1997, BLS took action, conducting a pilot time-use survey and cosponsoring a conference with the MacArthur Foundation entitled “Time Use, Nonmarket Work, and Family Well-Being.” These initiatives helped introduce BLS to the international community of time-use researchers, demonstrated the importance of time-use data, and allowed BLS to learn from the best practices of other organizations. In 1998, BLS established a working group to develop a more detailed plan for the collection of time-use data; the final report became the blueprint for the ATUS. The following year, BLS made the first budget request to the Office of Management and Budget for funding to collect time-use data. From 2000 to 2002, the survey became fully operationalized: detailed testing, design work, software development, training, the development of an activity classification scheme, and the drafting of call center procedures all began. Finally, the survey was officially launched in January 2003. A full summary of the ATUS development process can be found in the Monthly Labor Review article “Planning, designing, and executing the BLS American Time-Use Survey.”
To provide for the comparability of estimates from year to year, the ATUS strives for consistency at every stage of the survey process. For this reason, changes to the sample design, weights, variables, the lexicon, and other technical aspects of the survey occur infrequently. Any changes made are noted in all relevant documentation, as well as in a separate “Changes” document. A summary of notable changes follows.
As a cost-saving measure, the monthly sample size was reduced by 35 percent after 2003. No additional changes to the sample have been made.
Because the ATUS asks respondents only about “yesterday,” the survey may underestimate activities that occur on overnight trips away from home. Therefore, from 2005 to 2010, ATUS respondents were asked a series of questions about trips they took away from home for 2 or more nights in a row during a specific reference month. Questions were asked about the number, duration, and purpose of overnight trips. Because the data on trips were little used, the associated questions were discontinued in 2011; the decision allowed the ATUS to add questions on eldercare without increasing the cost of the survey or respondent burden.
Prior to 2011, the ATUS did not collect data on time spent providing eldercare. Recognizing the need for quality eldercare data, BLS developed questions to collect this information. The extensive development process included a subject-matter expert panel, a review of existing statistical measures designed to capture information about eldercare, focus groups with caregivers, feedback from the subject-matter experts and from survey methods experts, internal testing and refinement of the questions, and cognitive testing of the questions. Beginning in 2011, questions on eldercare replaced questions on trips away from home. The ATUS eldercare questions were designed specifically to identify eldercare providers and to measure the time they spent providing eldercare on the diary day. Additional information, such as the relationship between the care provider and care recipient, and the age of the care recipient, also are collected. For more information on the steps taken to add eldercare to the ATUS, see the article “Adding Eldercare Questions to the American Time Use Survey,” published in the Monthly Labor Review.
As mentioned in the Data sources section, modules consist of a series of questions about a special topic related to time use. Module questions come at the end of the ATUS interview and last no more than 5 minutes. The Eating and Health Module was added to the ATUS and fielded from January 2006 through December 2008. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute sponsored this module, which consisted of questions designed to examine relationships between time use; purchasing, preparing, and consuming food; and obesity. The module was re-added to the ATUS with a few modifications and fielded from January 2014 through December 2016.
The Well-Being Module, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, was added to the ATUS and fielded from January through December 2010 and again in a slightly modified format from January 2012 through December 2013. This module used the ATUS diary to capture how happy, tired, sad, stressed, and in pain respondents felt during their participation in selected activities. The module also captured how meaningful the activity was to the respondent and whether the respondent was interacting with anyone during the performance of the activity. Such information can be used to better understand the quality of life in the United States and to develop a measure of society’s well-being.
The Leave Module, sponsored by the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, was added to the ATUS and fielded from January through December 2011. This module asked wage and salary workers about their use of, and access to, paid and unpaid leave and about the flexibility of their work schedules. The data provide a richer description of work, including information about the types of leave that are available to workers, the reasons for which workers are able to take leave, the workers’ leave activity, and whether workers can adjust their schedules to balance personal and work obligations instead of taking leave. In 2017–18, a modified version of the Leave Module, called the “Leave and Job Flexibilities Module,” was sponsored by the Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. During the 2017–18 iteration, the module asked wage and salary workers, with the exception of self-employed workers, about their use of, and access to, paid and unpaid leave, their work schedules, and job flexibility.
More information about ATUS modules is available online at: https://www.bls.gov/tus/modules.htm.