Yale Labor Survey - Report of January 26, 2021 for the week ending January 16, 2021
The Yale Labor Survey, a research project from Yale University’s Tobin Center for Economic Policy, is designed to provide policy makers and the public with real-time information about the US labor market. Its questions are modelled on those of the monthly BLS-Census Current Population Survey. The project has been designed and developed by researchers at Yale University, Stanford University, and the Boston Fed’s research department. Data are made available weekly at the websites of the Boston Fed and the Yale Labor Survey website at the Tobin Center. Background documentation for the Yale Labor Survey is available in Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper No. 2243. The Yale Labor Survey is not an official forecast of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston or its president, the Federal Reserve System, or the Federal Open Market Committee.
Current YLS results cover labor market activities through the week of January 10-16, which is the January reference week for the government’s Current Population Survey (CPS). YLS data are not seasonally adjusted and refer to the population aged 20 and older. This week’s key findings are as follows:
- YLS employment measures were little changed from the previous week. The employment-to-population ratio fell by 0.2 percentage point while the work-for-pay ratio, which does not include persons on paid absences, was essentially unchanged.
- Both YLS employment measures remained close to their values during the CPS reference week for December, with the employment-to-population ratio within 0.1 percentage point of its mid-December value. The Bureau of Labor Statistics will release CPS results covering its January reference week on Friday, February 5.
- Over a longer horizon, the most recent YLS and CPS data indicate that the employment-to-population ratio has changed little since mid-October, after rising quickly following the initial pandemic shutdowns this spring.
- The YLS unemployment rate rose by 0.4 percentage point in the most recent survey while the YLS participation rate was essentially unchanged. Since mid-October, the YLS unemployment rate has been significantly higher than the CPS unemployment rate. The proximate cause of this discrepancy is a higher share of YLS respondents who are looking for work, as non-employed persons who are conducting active job searches are counted as unemployed in labor market surveys.
The work-for-pay ratio (WFPR) measures the fraction of survey respondents who report that they worked for pay or profit during the reference week. During the week ending January 16, the WFPR rose by less than 0.1 percentage point, to 56.0%. After a seasonal dip around the holidays, the WFPR is now within ½ percentage point of its level in mid-December.
The employment-to-population ratio (EPR) is the standard measure of labor market activity reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In addition to persons working for pay, the EPR also includes workers who are absent from their regular jobs (for example, workers on vacation). The EPR fell by 0.2 percentage point during the week of January 16, to 57.8%. During the December CPS reference week, the YLS EPR also rounded to 57.8%.
During the pandemic, the BLS has stated that the CPS has had difficulty distinguishing between workers who were absent from their jobs for the usual reasons (such as vacation or illness) and workers who were displaced by the pandemic. An alternative measure of the government’s EPR calculated by YLS researchers with CPS microdata, “EPR-alt,” is designed to remove pandemic-displaced workers from CPS employment. The EPR-alt measure is close to the YLS definition of employment, which includes only paid absences and is therefore less susceptible to classification error (see the background documentation for details). The most recent CPS estimate for EPR-alt corresponds to the week ending December 12, when this statistic was 58.6%, down slightly from its 58.9% reading from mid-November.
The YLS has consistently overestimated the unemployment rate, although the divergence depends upon whether corrections for recent CPS classification errors discussed above are made. To be classified as unemployed, a non-employed person must either (i) have actively searched for a job in the last four weeks, or (ii) be laid off from a job with an expectation of return. The questions that gather information about job-search activities and layoff conditions differ slightly between the CPS and YLS.
As noted above, the unemployment-rate discrepancy has been high in recent weeks. The YLS unemployment rate stood at 11.2% during the December CPS reference week, compared to a published CPS 20+ rate of 6.2%. In the most recent report, the YLS unemployment rose by 0.4 percentage point, to 10.6%.
Labor Force Participation Rate
As of the week of January 16, the YLS labor force participation rate (LFPR) stood at 66.2%, essentially unchanged from the previous week. During the last several weeks, the YLS participation rate has been much higher than the corresponding participation rate in the CPS. This difference between YLS and CPS participation rates explains most of the gap between the unemployment rates in the two surveys over the last several months. The source of these differences is an active area of research for the YLS team.