Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia speak during a roundtable discussion with President Donald Trump and industry executives in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on May 29, 2020. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Labor Bureau Says 'Misclassification Error' Is Making Unemployment Rate Look Lower Than It Really Is

"Long story short, BLS is telling us that we're at 16 percent unemployment."

Jake Johnson

Buried at the bottom of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' May jobs report—which President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers touted Friday as evidence that the U.S. economy is rebounding from the Covid-19 crisis at an extraordinary clip—is a note conceding that a "misclassification error" during the agency's data-collection process made the unemployment rate look significantly lower than it really is.

BLS, a Labor Department agency staffed with more than 2,000 career officials, admitted at the end of its report that "a large number of workers... were classified as employed but absent from work." Those workers, the agency explained, should have been classified as "unemployed on temporary layoff" by household survey interviewers but were not.

If those workers had been categorized correctly, the agency said, the "overall [May] unemployment rate would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported."

"However, according to usual practice, the data from the household survey are accepted as recorded," the agency said, explaining its decision to report that the unemployment rate fell to 13.3% in May, down from 14.7% in April. "To maintain data integrity, no ad hoc actions are taken to reclassify survey responses."

Because the classification error also affected the March and April jobs reports—the actual unemployment rate in April, according to BLS, was likely 19.7% rather than the reported 14.7%—it remains the case that the U.S. unemployment rate likely fell in May, just not to 13.3%.

"Unemployment fell no matter how you cut it," tweeted economist Martha Gimbel, "but double-digit unemployment is unacceptable and should not be our standard for victory."

Many U.S. media outlets on Friday—including, regrettably, this website—reported the top-line BLS unemployment number for May without emphasizing the agency's "misclassification error." (Common Dreams' Friday article on the unemployment numbers has been adjusted to highlight the agency's error.)

Analysts quickly dismissed speculation that the BLS numbers were improperly tampered with by the Trump administration, a possibility that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hinted at in a series of tweets Friday.

Late Friday, the Washington Post's Heather Long explained the process behind BLS' calculation of the unemployment rate:

The unemployment rate comes from a survey where Census workers ask about 60,000 households questions about whether they are working or looking for a job the week of May 10 to 16.

One of the first questions that gets asked is did the person do any work "for pay or profit?" There are then 45 pages of follow up questions that come after that. One of those questions asks if someone was "temporarily absent" from the job and why that absence occurred. One of the responses is "other."

The BLS instructed surveyors to try to figure out if someone was absent because of the pandemic and, if so, to classify them as on "temporary layoff," meaning they would count in the unemployment data. But some people continued to insist they were just "absent" from work during the pandemic, and the BLS has a policy of not changing people's answers once they are recorded. It's how the BLS protects again bias or data manipulation.

"Long story short, BLS is telling us that we're at 16 percent unemployment," David Dayen, executive editor at The American Prospect, wrote in a summary of the jobs report Friday. "And while that's better than the nearly 20 percent (if you include the misclassified) in the April jobs report, it means we've only brought a small sample of those workers back. The level of employment remains sharply reduced from the pre-pandemic months; we've maybe brought back a little over 10 percent of the jobs."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Analysis Shows Facebook Allows 99% of Climate Disinformation to Go Unchecked

The new study coincided with Facebook's new initiative to combat climate lies, which civil society groups criticized as "too little, too late."

Jake Johnson ·


Sanders Says There's 'No Excuse' for Any Democrat to Oppose Lowering Drug Prices

"Now is the time for Congress to show courage and stand up to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry."

Jake Johnson ·


Covid-19 Vaccine Makers Blasted for 'Unconscionable Profits,' Monopolies, and Low Taxes

"Big Pharma's business model—receive billions in public investments, charge exorbitant prices for lifesaving medicines, pay little tax—is gold dust for wealthy investors and corporate executives but devastating for global public health."

Common Dreams staff ·


UN Human Rights Chief Calls for Global Halt to Sales of Dangerous AI Technologies

"The power of AI to serve people is undeniable, but so is AI's ability to feed human rights violations at an enormous scale with virtually no visibility."

Brett Wilkins ·


ICC Approves Probe Into 'Drug War' Atrocities Carried Out by Duterte Regime

"Duterte along with his co-accused henchmen of the war on drugs will be facing justice."

Andrea Germanos ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo