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Behind the scenes: How the monthly jobs report is put together

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right. So where do the numbers that Scott just told us about come from? Darian Woods and Wailin Wong from our daily economic podcast The Indicator eavesdropped on a Florida call center where they help generate the calculations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Every month, the establishment survey interviews about 130,000 employers. It covers about a third of all nonfarmworkers in the country. Some employers complete the survey online, but a lot of it is done the old-fashioned way, over the phone.

ERICA HENNION: Hi, Darian, it's Erica Hennion with the U.S. Department of Labor. How are you doing this afternoon?

WOODS: I'm doing very well.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Erica Hennion is an agent for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Department of Labor. She is one of about 300 people working the phones to paint that big picture of jobs in America. Erica used to work as a bakery manager, so she's no stranger to chatting with people.

WOODS: And this chitchatting is really important because when we spoke, Erica was aiming to make 400 calls for the month with people who don't necessarily want to answer them.

HENNION: It gets stressful towards the end 'cause you're like, I want to make those numbers. A lot of businesses, when they call and we talk to them - they're not going to do it because it's not mandatory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: While I'm on the line, Erica calls up a professional employer organization in Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENNION: It's Erica with the U.S. Department of Labor. How are you doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Doing good. I think I just know your voice by now when you call.

HENNION: I know. It's been a while for us.

WONG: The way the survey works is that the same business will get a call each month for anywhere between two and four years. That way, they're already familiar with how the survey works when Erica dials them.

HENNION: And so for that pay period, how many total employees worked to receive pay?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Eighty.

HENNION: Eighty - it went up another person. Yay, we'll take it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It doesn't happen very often lately, so we'll take it.

HENNION: No, I know.

WOODS: Erica asks a few more questions, the same she'll ask every employer - how many of their staff are women, total payroll costs for everybody and the total hours worked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. You have a good one.

HENNION: Yep. Thanks. We'll talk to you later.

WOODS: OK. So if this is representative of the rest of the economy, then we're doing pretty good in the labor market.

HENNION: Yep. I will take any little bit of increase that I can see. Definitely.

WOODS: Has it gotten easier or harder to get people to respond over the years?

HENNION: It has gotten harder, especially after the pandemic. There is some distrust there, and I've actually had a few people that have yelled at me and screamed at me, and then they called me back and apologized because they realized that they took it out on the wrong person. I'm their outlet. I'm the person that they can physically talk to about the government.

WONG: Well, I'm glad they at least apologize, but it's like, maybe they should call their congressperson instead of yelling at Erica.

WOODS: Yeah, absolutely. Call your congressperson.

WONG: Erica's soft skills are critical for getting hard numbers correct. Several months ago, we had jobs reports that didn't seem so stellar, but they were later edited to be actually quite good. The numbers were revised up. And one reason for those revisions was the Bureau of Labor Statistics finally tracking down those respondents and getting their missing numbers after the deadline.

WOODS: And I feel like it's about time for me to leave Erica to continue with her work.

HENNION: I still have another eight more calls left, and I'm here for, like, another 45 minutes.

WOODS: Well, thank you for getting those three or 400 calls every month and getting those numbers out there.

HENNION: Well, thank you (laughter).

WONG: Wailin Wong.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
Wailin Wong