Government Jobs Story Failed to Note Impact of Furloughed Employees Returning to Work

December 10, 2013 - 8:11 PM

The story I published last week on the November employment numbers and the month-to-month increase they showed in the number of people employed by government regrettably missed a key fact: The furloughing and subsequent return to work of federal employees during and after the government shutdown in October had a significant impact on this number.

On Friday morning, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly employment report, I wrote a story headlined: “41% of Net New Jobs in November Were in Government.”

“Federal, state and local governments hired a net additional 338,000 workers in November, equaling 41 percent of the total of 818,000 net additional jobs created in the United States during the month,” said the first paragraph of my story.

Three paragraphs of my story presented the basic numbers on which this was based.

These numbers came directly from the updated historical tables that BLS publishes with its employment report. One set of numbers—the seasonally adjusted overall number of people “employed”—came from historical Table A-1. The other set of numbers—the seasonally adjusted number of people employed by government as wage and salary workers—came from historical Table A-8.

The key paragraphs I wrote about this data said:

“In October, governments around the country employed 19,726,000 people, according to data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In November, that rose to 20,064,000—a net increase of 338,000 people employed by government.

“Overall, in October, 143,568,000 people in the United States had jobs, according to BLS. In November, that rose to 144,386,000—a net increase of 818,000 people employed.

“The net increase of 338,000 people working for government equaled 41 percent of the overall net increase of 818,000 people working in the United States.”

Because the October-to-November increase in the number of government workers did not represent a long-term trend (in fact, the year-to-year number of people working for government had dropped), I also wrote this in my story:

“Despite the October-to-November increase in the number of people working for government in the United States, the 20,064,000 working for government this November was still fewer than the 20,598,000 who worked for the government in November 2012, according the BLS.”

It has since been correctly pointed out that this story failed to note the impact that the government shutdown had on the data BLS reported on government employment—namely that the increase in the number of people employed by government in November could largely be attributed to furloughed federal workers having returned to their jobs.

When I did the report on Friday morning, I went directly to the BLS’s historical tables. But I did not read the BLS news release on the November employment data, nor did I contact the BLS press office and ask them for further background or clarification on the numbers.

In fact, the release that the BLS put out with the November employment numbers clearly indicated that the return to work of government employees who had been furloughed during the government shutdown in October had had an impact on the employment data.

“Both the number of unemployed persons, at 10.9 million, and the unemployment rate, at 7.0 percent, declined in November. Among the unemployed, the number who reported being on temporary layoff decreased by 377,000,” said the BLS release on the employment situation. “This largely reflects the return to work of federal employees who were furloughed in October due to the partial government shutdown.”

“The number of persons unemployed less than 5 weeks declined by 300,000 in November, partially reflecting the return to work of federal employees on furlough in October,” said the release. “The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged at 4.1 million in November.”

“Total employment as measured by the household survey increased by 818,000 over the month, following a decline of 735,000 in the prior month,” said the release. “This over-the-month increase in employment partly reflected the return to work of furloughed federal government employees.”

The BLS release also highlighted some data from its “establishment survey.”  “Federal government employment continued to decline (-7,000) in November. Over the past 12 months, federal government employment has decreased by 92,000,” it said.

On Tuesday, I contacted the BLS press office and a spokesman pointed me to a release that BLS had put out in October explaining how federal workers furloughed during the government shutdown would impact the employment surveys published by BLS.

“Workers who indicate that they were not working during the entire survey reference week and expected to be recalled to their jobs should be classified in the household survey as unemployed, on temporary layoff,’ said the release. “This would include furloughed federal employees as well as other affected workers.

“These workers are classified this way regardless of whether they are, or expect to be, paid for the time they are on temporary layoff,” said the release. “Persons on temporary layoff need not be looking for work to be classified as unemployed.”