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Photo: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

The responses of fewer than 41,000 people were used to determine a major part of last month's U.S. unemployment rate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells Axios.

Why it matters: That's the lowest number in modern history and is one of many unusual developments in government data collection that have affected important readings for months.

What it means: The surprises in May's nonfarm payrolls report, which found there were only 21 million unemployed while 30 million Americans were collecting unemployment insurance benefits, were largely the result of oddities in data collection.

  • A portion of the jobs report is determined by a household survey in which government workers interview people at their homes and determine whether any person over the age of 16 is "employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force" — the only three possible designations.

What's happening: The coronavirus pandemic has "depressed" survey responses since March, as BLS stopped conducting in-person meetings, restricting its ability to reach new households, Julie Hatch Maxfield, BLS associate commissioner for employment and unemployment statistics, tells Axios.

  • "The first month of the sample we get a lot of information and that sets up the whole thing going forward," she says.
  • This has taken the response rate from 82% in January to 73% in March to 67% in May.
  • "Response rates probably will be depressed even when interviewers go back into the field," Maxfield notes.

What else: In May, BLS identified 9 million people who had lost their jobs but were counted as "not in the labor force" rather than unemployed because they hadn't been searching for a job in the last four weeks due to the pandemic.

  • If those people were considered unemployed it would have taken the unemployment rate to 17.9%.
  • A similar calculation would have put the unemployment rate at 19.8% in April and 7.5% in March, BLS says in a report about the coronavirus pandemic's impact on its data.
  • A separate "misclassification error" categorized millions of workers who had been absent and likely lost their jobs as employed.
  • Additionally, workers who were paid by their employer for any part of the pay period including the 12th of the month were counted as employed, even if they weren't actually at their jobs.

The bottom line: We may never know how many people lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • However, according to BLS, both the number of unemployment insurance claims and the number of unemployed people appear to have peaked in April and are declining.
Data: U.S. Department of Labor; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Another 1.5 million Americans applied for first-time traditional unemployment insurance benefits last week, and 700,000 more applied for benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

  • Combined with a decline in the number of people in the U.S. who are receiving benefits, total claims have dropped to 35.4 million from 37.2 million last week.

Background: The CARES Act allowed millions of people who had been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic but previously would not have qualified for unemployment insurance — the self-employed, people who had quit their job, those who had offers of employment but had not yet started a job — to qualify for PUA benefits.

  • Tens of millions have been approved for benefits under PUA, but many are not considered unemployed by BLS standards.

Go deeper

Sep 18, 2020 - Health

Rep. Khanna: COVID-19 could change the perception of public health care

Rep. Khanna and Axios' Margaret Talev

The universal experience of COVID-19 could change how opponents view Medicare for All, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said at an Axios virtual event on Friday.

What they're saying: "The pandemic has reminded us of our shared humanity with other American citizens. It's no longer possible to think, 'Oh, we're not part of those who get sick.' Now almost everyone knows, unfortunately, someone who has been hospitalized, someone who had a serious bout with COVID," Khanna said.

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Kellyanne Conway's parting power pointers

Kellyanne Conway addresses the 2020 Republican National Convention. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway has seen power exercised as a pollster, campaign manager and senior counselor to President Trump. Now that his term in office has concluded, she shared her thoughts with Axios.

Why it matters: If there's a currency in this town, it's power, so we've asked several former Washington power brokers to share their best advice as a new administration and new Congress settle in.

6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP holdouts press on with plans to crush Cheney

Screenshot of emails to a member of Congress from individuals who signed an Americans for Limited Government petition against Rep. Liz Cheney. Photo obtained by Axios

Pro-Trump holdouts in the House are forging ahead with an uphill campaign to oust Rep. Liz Cheney as head of the chamber's Republican caucus even though Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told them to back down.

Why it matters: What happens next will be a test of McCarthy's party control and the sincerity of his opposition to the movement. Cheney (R-Wyo.) is seen as a potential leadership rival to the California Republican.