How the Government Measures Unemployment

(This document is an updated version of Report 864, "How the Government Measures Unemployment," published in March 1994. Information here reflects procedures as of July 2001.)

Why does the Government collect statistics on the unemployed?

When workers are unemployed, they, their families and the country as a whole lose. Workers and their families lose wages, and the country loses the goods or services which could have been produced. In addition, the purchasing power of these workers is lost, which can lead to unemployment for yet other workers.

To know about unemployment—the extent and nature of the problem—requires information. How many people are unemployed? How did they become unemployed? How long have they been unemployed? Are their numbers growing or declining? Are they men or women? Are they young or old? Are they white or black or of Hispanic origin? Are they skilled or unskilled? Are they the sole support of their families, or do other family members have jobs? Are they more concentrated in one area of the country than another? After these statistics are obtained, they have to be interpreted properly so they can be used—together with other economic data—by policymakers in making decisions as to whether measures should be taken to influence the future course of the economy or to aid those affected by joblessness.

Where do the statistics come from?

Early each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor announces the total number of employed and unemployed persons in the United States for the previous month, along with many characteristics of such persons. These figures, particularly the unemployment rate—which tells you the percent of the labor force that is unemployed—receive wide coverage in the press, on radio, and on television.

Some people think that to get these figures on unemployment the Government uses the number of persons filing claims for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits under State or Federal Government programs. But some people are still jobless when their benefits run out, and many more are not eligible at all or delay or never apply for benefits. So, quite clearly, UI information cannot be used as a source for complete information on the number of unemployed.

Other people think that the Government counts every unemployed person each month. To do this, every home in the country would have to be contacted—just as in the population census every 10 years. This procedure would cost way too much and take far too long. Besides, people would soon grow tired of having a census taker come to their homes every month, year after year, to ask about job-related activities.

Because unemployment insurance records relate only to persons who have applied for such benefits, and since it is impractical to actually count every unemployed person each month, the Government conducts a monthly sample survey called the Current Population Survey (CPS) to measure the extent of unemployment in the country. The CPS has been conducted in the United States every month since 1940 when it began as a Work Projects Administration project. It has been expanded and modified several times since then. As explained later, the CPS estimates, beginning in 1994, reflect the results of a major redesign of the survey.

There are about 60,000 households in the sample for this survey. The sample is selected so as to be representative of the entire population of the United States. In order to select the sample, first, the 3,141 counties and county-equivalent cities in the country are grouped into 1,973 geographic areas. The Bureau of the Census then designs and selects a sample consisting of 754 of these geographic areas to represent each State and the District of Columbia. The sample is a State-based design and reflects urban and rural areas, different types of industrial and farming areas, and the major geographic divisions of each State.

Each of the 754 areas in the sample is subdivided into enumeration districts of about 300 households. The enumeration districts, in turn, are divided into smaller clusters of about four dwelling units each, through the use of address lists, detailed maps, and other sources. Then, the clusters to be surveyed are chosen statistically, and the households in these clusters are interviewed.

Every month, one-fourth of the households in the sample are changed, so that no household is interviewed more than 4 consecutive months. This practice avoids placing too heavy a burden on the households selected for the sample. After a household is interviewed for 4 consecutive months, it leaves the sample for 8 months and then is again interviewed for the same 4 calendar months a year later, before leaving the sample for good. This procedure results in approximately 75 percent of the sample remaining the same from month to month and 50 percent from year to year.

Each month, 1,500 highly trained and experienced Census Bureau employees interview persons in the 60,000 sample households for information on the labor force activities (jobholding and jobseeking) or non-labor force status of the members of these households during the week that includes the 12th of the month (the reference week). This information, relating to all household members 16 years of age and over, is entered by the interviewers into laptop computers; at the end of each day's interviewing, the data collected are transmitted to the Census Bureau's central computer in Washington, D.C. In addition, a portion of the sample is interviewed by phone through two central data collection facilities. (Prior to 1994, the interviews were conducted using a paper questionnaire which had to be mailed in by the interviewers each month.)

Each person is classified according to the activities he/she engaged in during the reference week. Then, the total numbers are "weighted," or adjusted to independent population estimates (based on updated decennial census results). The weighting takes into account the age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, and State of residence of the population, so that these characteristics are reflected in the proper proportions in the final estimates.

A sample is not a total count and the survey may not produce the same results that would be obtained from interviewing the entire population. But the chances are 90 out of 100 that the monthly estimate of unemployment from the sample is within about 230,000 of the figure obtainable from a total census. Since monthly unemployment totals have ranged between about 5 and 8 million in recent years, the possible error resulting from sampling is not large enough to distort the total unemployment picture.

Because these interviews are the basic source of data for total unemployment, information must be factual and correct. Respondents are never asked specifically if they are unemployed, nor are they given an opportunity to decide their own labor force status. Unless they already know how the Government defines unemployment, many of them may not be sure of their actual classification when the interview is completed.

Similarly, interviewers do not decide the respondents' labor force classification. They simply ask the questions in the prescribed way and record the answers. Individuals are then classified as employed or unemployed by the computer based on the information collected and the definitions programmed into the computer.

All interviews must follow the same procedures to obtain comparable results. Because of the crucial role interviewers have in the household survey, a great amount of time and effort is spent maintaining the quality of their work. Interviewers are given intensive training, including classroom lectures, discussion, practice, observation, home-study materials, and on-the-job training. At least once a year, they convene for day-long training and review sessions, and, also at least once a year, they are accompanied by a supervisor during a full day of interviewing to determine how well they carry out their assignments.

A selected number of households are reinterviewed each month to determine whether the information obtained in the first interview was correct. The information gained from these reinterviews is used to improve the entire training program.

What are the basic concepts of employment and unemployment?

The basic concepts involved in identifying the employed and unemployed are quite simple:

  • People with jobs are employed.
  • People who are jobless, looking for jobs, and available for work are unemployed.
  • People who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force.
The survey is designed so that each person age 16 and over who is not in an institution such as a prison or mental hospital or on active duty in the Armed Forces is counted and classified in only one group. The sum of the employed and the unemployed constitutes the civilian labor force. Persons not in the labor force combined with those in the civilian labor force constitute the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years of age and over. Under these concepts, most people are quite easily classified. For example:

Elizabeth Lloyd reported to the interviewer that last week she worked 40 hours as a sales manager for the Western Beverage Company.

Steve Hogan lost his job when the local plant of the Chariot Aircraft Manufacturing Company was closed down. Since then, he has been visiting the personnel offices of the other factories in the town trying to find a job.

Linda Coleman is a homemaker. Last week, she was occupied with her normal household chores. She neither held a job nor looked for a job. Her 80-year old father who lives with her has not worked or looked for work because of a disability.

Each of these examples is clear cut. Elizabeth is employed; Steve is unemployed; and Linda and her father are not in the labor force.

Who is counted as employed?

Not all of the wide range of job situations in the American economy fit neatly into a given category. For example, people are considered employed if they did any work at all for pay or profit during the survey week. This includes all part-time and temporary work, as well as regular full-time year-round employment. Persons also are counted as employed if they have a job at which they did not work during the survey week because they were:

  • On vacation;
  • Ill;
  • Experiencing child-care problems;
  • Taking care of some other family or personal obligation;
  • On maternity or paternity leave;
  • Involved in an industrial dispute; or
  • Prevented from working by bad weather.
These persons are counted among the employed and tabulated separately as "with a job but not at work," because they have a specific job to which they will return.

But what about the two following cases? George Lewis is 16 years old, and he has no job from which he receives any pay or profit. However, George does help with the regular chores around his father's farm about 20 hours each week.

Lisa Fox spends most of her time taking care of her home and children, but, all day Friday and Saturday, she helps in her husband's computer software store.

Under the Government's definition of employment, both George and Lisa are considered employed. They fall into a group called "unpaid family workers," which includes any person who worked 15 hours or more in a week without pay in a family-operated enterprise. Such persons contribute significantly to our productive effort and are an important part of our labor supply, particularly in agriculture and retail trade. However, unpaid family workers who work fewer than 15 hours per week are counted as "not in the labor force."

Who is counted as unemployed?

Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work. Actively looking for work may consist of any of the following activities:

  • Contacting:
    An employer directly or having a job interview;
    A public or private employment agency;
    Friends or relatives;
    A school or university employment center;
  • Sending out resumes or filling out applications;
  • Placing or answering advertisements;
  • Checking union or professional registers; or
  • Some other means of active job search.

Passive methods of jobsearch do not result in jobseekers actually contacting potential employers, and therefore are not acceptable for classifying persons as unemployed. These would include such things as attending a job training program or course or merely reading the want ads.

Workers expecting to be recalled from layoff are counted as unemployed, whether or not they have engaged in a specific jobseeking activity. But, in all other cases, the individual must be actively engaged in some job search activity and available for work (except for temporary illness).

The questions used in the interviews are carefully designed to elicit the most accurate picture of each person's labor force activities. Some of the major questions that determine employment status are: (The capitalized words are emphasized when read by the interviewers.) 1. Does anyone in this household have a business or farm? 2. LAST WEEK, did you do ANY work for (either) pay (or profit)? If the answer to question 1 is "yes" and the answer to question 2 is "no," the next question is: 3. LAST WEEK, did you do any unpaid work in the family business or farm? For those who reply "no" to both questions 2 and 3, the next key questions used to determine employment status are: 4. LAST WEEK, (in addition to the business,) did you have a job either full or part time? Include any job from which you were temporarily absent. and 5. LAST WEEK, were you on layoff from a job? and 6. What was the main reason you were absent from work LAST WEEK? For those who respond "yes" to question 5 about being on layoff, the following questions are asked: 7. Has your employer given you a date to return to work? and, if "no," 8. Have you been given any indication that you will be recalled to work within the next 6 months? If the responses to either question 7 or 8 indicate that the person expects to be recalled from layoff, he/she is counted as unemployed. For those who were reported as having no job or business from which they were absent or on layoff, the next question is: 9. Have you been doing anything to find work during the last 4 weeks? For those who say "yes," the next question is: 10. What are all of the things you have done to find work during the last 4 weeks? If an active method of looking for work, such as those listed at the beginning of this section, is mentioned, the following question is asked: 11. LAST WEEK, could you have started a job if one had been offered? If there is no reason, except temporary illness, that the person could not take a job, he/she is considered to be not only looking but also available for work and is counted as unemployed.

Some examples of responses that are typically given in interviews and that may result in a person being classified as unemployed are: 1. Yvonne Bennett reported that 2 weeks ago she applied for a job as a receptionist at the Capitol Travel Agency and the Equity Mortgage Lending Company. She is awaiting the results of her applications. Yvonne is unemployed because she made a specific effort to find a job within the prior 4 weeks and is presently available for work. 2. Mrs. Jenkins tells the interviewer that her daughter Katherine Marie was thinking about looking for work in the prior 4 weeks but knows of no specific efforts she has made. Katherine Marie does not meet the activity test for unemployment and is, therefore, counted as "not in the labor force." 3. Paul Flynn has been checking for openings on a bricklayer's union register for each of the past 3 weeks, but his wife reported that last week he had the flu and was unable to work because of it. Paul is counted as unemployed because he took steps to look for work in his trade and would have been available for work during the survey reference week, except for his temporary illness. 4. Marcus Green was laid off from the Hotshot Motor Company when the firm began retooling to produce a new model car. Marcus knows he will be called back to work as soon as the model changeover is completed, and he also knows it is unlikely that he would be able to find a job for the period he is laid off; so, although he is available to work, he is not seeking a job. Marcus is unemployed because he is waiting to be recalled from layoff. 5. Joan Howard told the interviewer that she has filed applications with three companies for summer jobs. However, it is only April and she doesn't wish to start work until at least June 15, because she is attending school. Although she has taken specific steps to find a job, Joan is classified as not in the labor force because she is not currently available for work. From these definitions and examples, it can be seen that the total unemployment figures cover more than the number of persons who have lost jobs. It includes persons who have quit their jobs to look for other employment, workers whose temporary jobs have ended, persons looking for their first jobs, and experienced workers looking for jobs after an absence from the labor force (as, for example, a woman who returns to the labor force after her children have entered school).

Who is not in the labor force?

Labor force measures are based on the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years old and over. Excluded are persons under 16 years of age, all inmates of institutions and persons on active duty in the Armed Forces. All other members of the civilian noninstitutional population are eligible for inclusion in the labor force, and those 16 and over who have a job or are actively looking for one are so classified. The remainder—those who have no job and are not looking for one—are counted as "not in the labor force." Many who do not participate in the labor force are going to school or are retired. Family responsibilities keep others out of the labor force. Still others have a physical or mental disability which prevents them from participating in labor force activities.

A series of questions is asked each month of persons not in the labor force to obtain information about their desire for work, the reasons why they had not looked for work in the last 4 weeks, their prior job search, and their availability for work. These questions include: 1. Do you currently want a job, either full or part time? 2. What is the main reason you were not looking for work during the LAST 4 WEEKS? 3. Did you look for work at any time during the last 12 months? 4. LAST WEEK, could you have started a job if one had been offered?

These questions form the basis for estimating the number of persons who are not in the labor force but who are considered to be "marginally attached" to it. These are persons without jobs who are not currently looking for work (and therefore not counted as unemployed), but who nevertheless have demonstrated some degree of labor force attachment. Specifically, to be counted as "marginally attached," individuals must indicate that they currently want a job, have looked for work in the last 12 months (or since they last worked if they worked within the last 12 months), and are available for work. "Discouraged workers" are a subset of the marginally attached. "Discouraged workers" report they are not currently looking for work for at least one of 4 reasons: 1) they believe no job is available to them in their line of work or area, 2) they had previously been unable to find work, 3) they lack the necessary schooling, training, skills or experience, or 4) employers think they are too young or too old, or they face some other type of discrimination.

Additional questions about persons not in the labor force are asked during each household's last month of its 4-month tenure in the sample rotation pattern. These questions are designed to collect information about why these people left their previous jobs, when they last worked at a job or business, whether they intend to look for work in the near future, and their current situation (retired, disabled, ill, in school, taking care of house or family, or something else).

What about cases of overlap?

When the population is classified according to who is employed, unemployed, and not in the labor force on the basis of their activities during a given calendar week, situations are often encountered where individuals have engaged in more than one activity. Since persons are counted only once, it must be decided which activity will determine their status. Therefore, a system of priorities is used: Labor force activities take precedence over non-labor force activities. Working or having a job takes precedence over looking for work. Some examples are: 1. James Kelly and Elyse Martin attend Jefferson High School. James works after school at the North Star Cafe, and Elyse is seeking a part-time job at the same establishment (also after school.) James' job takes precedence over his non-labor force activity of going to school, as does Elyse's search for work; therefore, James is counted as employed and Elyse is counted as unemployed. 2. Last week, Mary Davis, who was working for Stuart Comics, went to the Coastal Video Shop on her lunch hour to be interviewed for a higher paying job. Mary's interview constitutes looking for work, but her work takes priority, and she is counted as employed. (Indeed, because of the way the questionnaire is set up, information about Mary's search for work is not even obtained.) 3. John Hinton has a job at the Nuts and Bolts Company, but he didn't go to work last week because of a strike at the plant. Last Thursday, he went to the Screw and Washer Factory to see about a temporary job until the strike terminates. John was "with a job but not at work" due to an industrial dispute, which takes priority over looking for work; therefore, he is counted as employed. (Again, information would not be obtained on John's jobsearch effort.) 4. Amy Douglas lost her job at the book store on Wednesday of the survey week. She answered newspaper want-ads on Thursday and Friday but had not obtained a new job by the end of the week. Amy is counted as employed, since she was paid for the 3 days that she did work, even though she was unemployed for part of the survey week. (Once again, information would not be obtained on her search for work, though Amy would be identified as working "part time for economic reasons," by virtue of her having her workweek reduced to part time by her dismissal from her previous job.)

To summarize: Employed persons consist of:

  • All persons who did any work for pay or profit during the survey week.
  • All persons who did at least 15 hours of unpaid work in a family-operated enterprise.
  • All persons who were temporarily absent from their regular jobs because of illness, vacation, bad weather, industrial dispute, or various personal reasons, whether or not they were paid for the time off.

    Unemployed persons are:

  • All persons who did not have a job at all during the survey week, made specific active efforts to find a job during the prior 4 weeks, and were available for work (unless temporarily ill).
  • All persons who were not working and were waiting to be called back to a job from which they had been laid off need not be looking for work to be classified as unemployed.

    Because of the complexities of the American economic system and the wide variety of job arrangements and jobseeking efforts, the definitions of employment and unemployment must be specific so as to ensure uniformity of reporting at any given time and over any period of time. When all of the details are considered, definitions may seem rather complicated. The basic concepts, however, are still the same: People with jobs are employed, people who do not have jobs and are looking for jobs are unemployed, and people who meet neither labor market test are not in the labor force. The qualifying conditions are necessary to cover the wide range of labor force patterns and to provide an objective set of standards for consistent treatment of cases. Where can people find the data?

    Each month, summary statistics on unemployment and employment are published in a news release titled The Employment Situation. The news release and supporting data are available online at immediately after the data are released. Later in the month, detailed information is published in a periodical called Employment and Earnings. Special labor force topics are addressed in articles published in the Monthly Labor Review (another peridoical published by BLS) and in a series of briefs called Issues in Labor Statistics that are published irregularly. Both the Review and the Issues are available online at the above address.

    How are seasonal fluctuations taken into account?

    Total employment and unemployment are higher in some parts of the year than in others. For example, unemployment is higher in January and February, when it is cold in many parts of the country and work in agriculture, construction and other seasonal industries is curtailed. Also, both employment and unemployment rise every June, when students enter the labor force in search of summer jobs.

    The seasonal fluctuations in the number of employed and unemployed persons reflect not only the normal seasonal weather patterns that tend to be repeated year after year, but also the hiring (and layoff) patterns that accompany regular events such as the winter holiday season and the summer vacation season. These variations make it difficult to tell whether month-to-month changes in employment and unemployment are due to normal seasonal patterns or to changing economic conditions. To deal with such problems, a statistical technique called seasonal adjustment is used. This technique uses the past history of the series to identify the seasonal movements and to calculate the size and direction of these movements. A seasonal adjustment factor is then developed and applied to the estimates to reduce the effects of regular seasonal fluctuations on the data. When a statistical series has been seasonally adjusted, the normal seasonal fluctuations are smoothed out and data for any month can be more meaningfully compared with data from any other month or with an annual average. Many of the time series that are based on monthly data are seasonally adjusted.

    Is there only one official definition of unemployment?

    Yes, there is only one official definition of unemployment and that was discussed above. However, a number of analysts believe this measure to be too restricted, that it does not adequately capture the breadth of labor market problems. For this reason, economists at BLS developed a set of alternative measures of labor underutilisation. These measures are published every month in the Employment Situation news release. They range from a very limited measure that includes only those who have been unemployed (as officially defined) for 15 weeks or more to a very broad one that includes total unemployed (as officially defined), all marginally attached workers, and all persons employed part time for economic reasons. How is unemployment measured for states and local areas?

    The concepts and definitions underlying state and local area (subnational) data are the same as those used at the national level. While the CPS provides the basis of monthly estimates of employment and unemployment for the country as a whole, the sample size is not sufficiently large to produce reliable monthly estimates for most subnational areas. Instead, monthly estimates for all states, the District of Columbia, New York City, and the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area are produced using estimating equations based on regression techniques. These models combine current and historical data from the CPS, the Current Employment Statistics (CES) program—which is the Bureau of labor Statistics' survey of nonfarm payroll employment, and state unemployment insurance (UI) systems. Annual average data for the areas mentioned above, however, are derived directly from the CPS.

    Monthly estimates for labor market areas (other than New York City and the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area) are produced through a building-block approach known as the "Handbook method." This procedure also uses data from several sources, including the CPS, the CES program, UI systems, and the decennial census, to create estimates that are adjusted to the statewide measures of employment and unemployment. Below the labor market area level, estimates are prepared using disaggregation techniques based on inputs from the decennial census, annual population estimates, and current UI data.

    For more information

    For labor force statistics from the CPS or inquiries regarding the concepts and definitions described in this report, contact the Division of Labor Force Statistics at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (e-mail address: CPS data can be found on the Internet at /cps/

    What do the unemployment insurance figures measure?

    Statistics on insured unemployment in the United States are collected as a byproduct of unemployment insurance (UI) programs. Workers who lose their jobs and are covered by these programs typically file claims which serve as notice that they are beginning a period of unemployment. Claimants who qualify for benefits are counted in the insured unemployment figures.

    Some countries base their estimates of total unemployment on the number of persons filing claims for or receiving UI payments or the number of persons registered with government employment offices as available for work. These data are also available in the United States, but they are not used to measure total unemployment because they exclude several important groups. In terms of employed workers, the principal groups not covered are self-employed workers, unpaid family workers, workers in certain not-for-profit organizations, and several other, primarily seasonal, worker categories.

    In addition to those unemployed workers whose last jobs were in the excluded kinds of employment, the insured unemployed exclude the following: 1. Unemployed workers who have exhausted their benefits; 2. Unemployed workers who have not yet earned benefit rights (new entrants or reentrants to the labor force); 3. Disqualified workers whose unemployment is considered to have resulted from their own actions rather than from economic conditions, for example, a worker discharged for misconduct on the job; and 4. Otherwise eligible unemployed persons who do not file for benefits. Because of these and other limitations, statistics on insured unemployment, although having many important uses (one of which is discussed below), cannot be used as a count of total unemployment in the United States. In 1988, for example, when there were virtually no extended unemployment benefits paid to persons who had otherwise exhausted their benefits, the number receiving UI benefits represented only 31 percent of the total unemployed. In 1992, when extended UI benefits were in effect, this proportion was 51 percent.


    Last Modified Date: October 16, 2001