The February jobs report debunked the weather blame game


The February snowstorms didn't have such a negative effect on some of us. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

The February jobs report is a perfect illustration of why the weather has been unfairly blamed for the weakness in hiring this winter. To understand why, you have to dive into the boring logistics of how the Labor Department calculates its data.

Let’s start with the government’s estimate of job creation. The number is based off what is called the Establishment Survey, which polls businesses about how many people are on their payrolls. The survey typically occurs during the week that includes that 12th of the month.

In order for weather to have an effect on the government’s tally of job growth, two things need to happen: First, the bad weather needs to coincide with the days when the pollsters are making their calls. If it hits at the end of the month, for example, the survey is not going to capture it. Second, the weather needs to knock someone out of work for the entire pay period in order to be discounted from the payroll estimate. In other words, a construction worker who is paid by the week needs to miss the entire week due to bad weather. Here’s the government’s own language:

Employees who receive pay for any part of the pay period, even 1 hour, are counted in the payroll employment figures.

Given that, February should have been the poster child for Weather Gone Wild. A massive snowstorm hit much of the eastern United States just before Valentine’s Day, as the government was conducting its survey. Economists had been bracing themselves for a dismal number as a result. Instead, job growth clocked in at 175,000 jobs, beating expectations.

While this Southern girl has done her fair share of complaining about the snow, ice and single-digit temperatures, the weather has not been awful enough to keep folks from their jobs for a week or even longer. Instead, the government says that the effects of the severe weather are more likely to show up in the number of hours worked. That estimate has indeed dropped since November, from an average of 34.5 hours to 34.2 in February.

About now you may be thinking, “What about the 600,000 people who missed work in February due to bad weather?” Those folks are counted using a different survey. The Current Population Survey polls individual households and is used to calculate the unemployment rate. (It also includes an estimate of job growth, but economists have typically considered the establishment survey as more reliable.)

The important thing to remember is that those 600,000 people are still considered employed. Again, from the Labor Department:

Persons who miss the entire week's work for weather-related events are counted as employed whether or not they are paid for the time off.

Of course, it may be true that businesses might have hired more  people if the weather hadn’t been so crappy. The argument here isn’t that this abysmal winter has had no impact on the economy. There are other economic factors, such as housing starts, that are more sensitive to changes in the temperature. But pointing fingers at Old Man Winter for every lousy jobs report is a misreading of the data.

"Although bad weather has been blamed by some, there is little evidence of a weather effect in the data," Keith Hall, former director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told us.

There is one thing all economists seem to agree on, however: Spring can't get here fast enough.

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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