During recessions in particular, these somewhat hidden, underemployed groups can be quite large (numbering 10.9 million and 2.3 million people, respectively, in April).
As a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes broader measures of underemployment, including one known as the “U-6” rate of labor underutilization. (The headline number you usually hear referred to as the unemployment rate is called the “U-3.”) The U-6 rate includes those reluctant part-timers and people who want to work and have looked for jobs anytime in the past year. Their inclusion brings the overall underemployment rate to 22.8 percent.
That’s crazy high. But even this metric doesn’t reflect the full universe of those adversely affected by lousy labor markets right now, given the peculiar nature of the current crisis.
So two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Jason Faberman and Aastha Rajan, have proposed an even more expansive measure, which they’ve branded “U-Cov.”
The U-Cov rate includes all the people who are included in the U-6. It also adds in people who are still employed but are on unpaid leave as well as people who are officially out of the labor force and want jobs but haven’t looked even in the past year.
Here’s part of the authors’ explanation for why they adding in these people helps paint a fuller picture right now:
First, unpaid leave normally has little to do with the business cycle, but . . . the share of the employed on unpaid leave spiked in March, and we believe this spike is related to the Covid-19 crisis. There was a similar spike in the share of the labor force on temporary layoff. These spikes likely represent the wave of individuals placed on furlough or other types of temporary leave due to the stay-at-home directives. Second, there is a high chance that many workers may be misclassified in the official statistics. For example, according to the Labor Department, those on furlough should count as temporarily laid off, but the spike in unpaid leave suggests that not all of them are counted that way. Third, some of those who have lost their jobs due to the crisis may not meet the criteria for counting as unemployed because they did not search for new work, either because they believed the stay-at-home directives have halted hiring or because they believed the directives made them unavailable to start a new job (being available to start work is an additional criterion one must meet to officially count as unemployed). These individuals would be counted as out of the labor force.
If you thought the U-3 or the U-6 rates were high, take a gander at the U-Cov rate in April: 30.7 percent (in non-seasonally adjusted terms). In other words, nearly a third of those who want to work are having trouble actually finding sufficient work.
Faberman sent me data for this new U-Cov measure going back to 1995; the previous series high — before the coronavirus pandemic — was 20.8 percent in December 2009.
Keep an eye on this metric. It may come in handy next month, as we survey how much economic damage this pandemic has wrought so far.
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