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American Time Use Survey

Impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the American Time Use Survey for 2020

The 2020 American Time Use Survey (ATUS) was greatly affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Following is information about the pandemic and ATUS, including a summary of how the survey and data were impacted.

1. How did the pandemic affect ATUS data collection?

At the start of 2020, interviewers conducted the ATUS nearly every day from the Census Bureau's call center in Jeffersonville, Indiana. The Census Bureau's processing center was printing, assembling, and mailing information about the survey to individuals who were in the ATUS sample. These materials introduced the survey and alerted recipients that a Census interviewer would be calling to conduct the ATUS. The processing center also sent reminder postcards and, for some individuals, incentives to complete the survey.

On March 19, 2020, Census temporarily closed its call and processing centers out of concern for the safety of the staff. Because of the closure, ATUS data collection and mailings paused. On May 11, 2020, ATUS data collection resumed, but at a reduced capacity. At that time, a small number of ATUS interviewers received the technology and training needed to conduct the survey from their homes. These interviewers worked through a backlog of work and, in many cases, were calling individuals who had not been mailed materials introducing the survey.

In mid-May, the call center reopened. Mailings of survey materials to individuals in the ATUS sample resumed. A small number of interviewers returned to the call center, and the number of interviewers working remotely grew.

2. Are ATUS data representative of 2020?

No. ATUS data collected in 2020 are not representative of the full year because they were collected for only 10 months. ATUS data were not collected about the period March 18, 2020 to May 9, 2020, which coincided with a time when most residents of the United States were encouraged to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The ATUS does not have information on how people spent their time during the period when data were not collected.

3. How is the ATUS news release of 2020 data different from releases for other years?

In most years, ATUS staff produce a news release that highlights time use results for the previous year. With a 2-month gap in ATUS data collection in 2020, it is impossible to produce accurate estimates of how people spent their time in 2020. Instead, we developed a news release that compared time use estimates prior to the pandemic to those after the onset of the pandemic. The news release features 2019 and 2020 estimates for May 10th through December 31st. (Data were not collected in 2020 about March 18th to May 9th.)

Although many of the tables in the news release highlighting 2020 data are modeled on tables published in previous ATUS news releases, we made some changes to highlight data particularly relevant for the pandemic.

  • Travel is reported as a separate activity in the news release of 2020 data rather than being combined with major activity categories as in previous releases.
  • The news release of 2020 data includes tables that provide information about who people were with and where they spent their time. While these data always have been collected in the ATUS and published on public use microdata files, this is the first time we have included this information about where and with whom people spent their time in an ATUS news release.

4. Will ATUS charts, tables, and the online database be updated with 2020 estimates?

Because of the 2-month suspension of ATUS data collection in 2020, estimates appearing on ATUS charts, tables, and in the BLS database were not updated with 2020 data. This is because it is not possible to produce annual 2020 estimates with only 10 months of data.

5. Were unpublished tables produced using the 2020 ATUS data?

Each year, ATUS staff produce a number of unpublished tables that show average annual time use estimates for people with various demographic and household characteristics. With the 2020 data, these tables represent the pandemic period for which ATUS data were collectedMay 10th through December 31stand, when ready, they will be available from ATUS staff upon request.

6. Were any new activities added to the ATUS Activity Lexicon?

No. However, people reported new activities during the pandemic, such as having their temperature checked before a hair appointment, getting tested for COVID-19, and assisting children with virtual schooling. Therefore, we added many examples to the ATUS Activity Lexicon in 2020. ATUS coders use the lexicon to assign 6-digit activity codes to each reported activity. For more information, see documentation about changes to the ATUS Activity Lexicon.

7. How are virtual activities categorized in the ATUS Activity Lexicon?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many activities that previously had predominantly been done in person moved to a virtual or online environmentschool, work, religious services, medical appointments, social events, and more.

In the ATUS, activities done virtually are almost always assigned the same activity codes as when they are done in person. For example, grocery shopping online is assigned the same activity code as grocery shopping in a store. A telemedicine appointment with one's doctor is coded the same as meeting with a doctor at their office. Taking classes virtually or online are coded the same as attending classes at school. Teleworking and working at one's workplace are both classified as working. One exception is talking with friends. When done in person, time spent talking with friends is classified as socializing and communicating with others, whereas it is classified as telephone calls when done over the phone or while using video calling services.

8. How did the pandemic's effect on ATUS data collection affect survey response?

Response to the ATUS was directly impacted by the suspension of ATUS data collection and mail-out operations in the spring of 2020. Some individuals in the ATUS sample were called for fewer than the 8 weeks specified in the ATUS survey design because interviewers were unable to work from mid-March until mid-May 2020. Additionally, some individuals were not sent brochures and letters informing them they had been selected for the ATUS prior to an interviewer calling them. These and other factors affected ATUS response rates in 2020. Survey response to the 2020 ATUS was 39 percent, compared with 42 percent in 2019.

9. How did changes to Current Population Survey operations impact the ATUS?

Selected individuals are interviewed for the ATUS 2 to 5 months after completing the Current Population Survey (CPS). In the ATUS, incentives and an appeal to call a Census Bureau interviewer to complete the survey are mailed to households for which Census does not have a phone number from CPS. In the early months of the pandemic, CPS severely curtailed in-person interviewing and instead relied exclusively on phone interviewing. At this time, CPS allocated extra resources to identify phone numbers for households in their sample. These CPS research efforts significantly reduced the number of households for which Census did not have phone numbers and subsequently reduced the number of incentive cases in the ATUS.

10. Some of the Current Population Survey labor force data were misclassified. Were some ATUS labor force data also misclassified?

At the onset of the pandemic, BLS staff noticed and reported that some people in the CPSthe source of the national unemployment rate and the sample frame for the ATUSwere incorrectly classified as employed but absent from work rather than unemployed. In the ATUS interview, respondents are asked an abbreviated set of the CPS labor force questions in order to determine if their labor force status changed between their 8th CPS interview and the ATUS interview.

On June 15, 2020, ATUS interviewers were provided with guidance for recording responses to ATUS labor force questions during the pandemic. (This was similar to guidance provided to CPS interviewers.) If respondents had a job, but were absent from work because they were under quarantine, self-isolating, or sick due to the coronavirus, interviewers were instructed to record that they were absent from work because of an illness, injury, or medical problem. If respondents had a job and did not work because of the coronavirus, but were not ill or under quarantine, interviewers were instructed to record "on layoff" as the reason for the absence.

The obvious indication of misclassification in the CPS data was an increase in the number of employed people who were "not at work for other reasons." In the May 10th to December 31st ATUS data, about 2.1 percent of employed persons were classified as employed but not at work for other reasons in 2020, higher than the 0.6 percent in this category for the same period in 2019. This increase indicates that some people in the ATUS may also have been misclassified. However, time use estimates were not significantly impacted by this possible misclassification.

11. What technical information do I need to know about pandemic effects on the 2020 public use microdata files before working with them?

If you plan to conduct your own analyses of the 2020 ATUS public use microdata files, please first review the ATUS technical documentation about pandemic effects on these files.


Last Modified Date: July 22, 2021