How will shutdown furloughs affect the October jobs numbers?

October 24, 2013

The 16-day government shutdown didn’t affect the jobs numbers that came out this week, unless you count the fact that it made them late — the Bureau of Labor Statistics couldn’t compile and release the September data with just three employees on staff during the closure.

The impact on employment actually wouldn’t show up until October’s figures come out Nov. 8, and policymakers are surely anxious to see whether they provide ammunition to criticize their opponents.

Perhaps some of our readers are curious about how the BLS will account for shutdown furloughs in the next report. Here’s how it works:

A banner reading "Jobs" hangs on the facade of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP-Getty).
A banner reading “Jobs” hangs on the facade of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The first thing numbers watchers have to keep in mind is that jobs reports are based on two separate BLS surveys: One conducted on households and the other on employers.

The household numbers for October will inevitably reflect some upward pressure on unemployement. That’s because it classifies individuals as unemployed if they were on furlough, so long as they were off the job during the reference week, which is Oct. 6-12 in this case. That includes federal employees who were guaranteed back pay in the deal that ended the shutdown, according to BLS spokeswoman Stacey Standish.

The opposite is true with the employer survey, which counts individuals as employed if they are paid — including retroactively — for any part of a pay period that includes Oct. 12, Standish said. As such, the employment level will not be affected by furloughed feds.

One thing to keep in mind is that many government contractors were affected by the shutdown as well. But unlike federal workers, they won’t receive back pay if they were taken off the job for the closure period.

That means the household and employer surveys will both reflect contractor furloughs, creating upward pressure on the numbers.

In summary, the household-survey data counts furloughed feds and contractors as unemployed, while the employer survey places only contractors in that category if they were out of work.

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed or e-mail  josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Steve Vogel · October 24, 2013