Monthly Updates: Government Employment During the Pandemic

A regularly updated look at how a historic pandemic has changed the public-sector workforce, month by month and sector by sector. Plus, is seasonally adjusted data missing something important?

Any way you slice it, state and local government has lost workers during the pandemic.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows a big drop in government employment in April — there was a rush of closures across the economy toward the end of March, which was reflected in claims for unemployment insurance — followed by a leveling off and gradual recovery.

This page will serve as a data repository where we watch the trends in government employment through the pandemic. We will update it monthly as the BLS releases its regular jobs reports.

The overall trends are clear. But when one begins to ask how fast the public sector has recovered, or how different parts of it are doing, or why, the way you slice it begins to matter a lot more.

For example, education jobs fluctuate naturally each year as schools go on summer break. The U.S. Postal Service is grappling with big funding problems. And the pandemic is affecting everything.

If one breaks out federal, state and local government employment without including education or Postal Service workers, an obvious picture emerges: All have taken their lumps, but local government in particular was hit very hard.

As the National Association of Counties has pointed out, it’s important to take these things into consideration when perusing BLS data. The bureau’s top-line government numbers lump in education and the Postal Service with other kinds of government work, but when one delves into those areas individually it becomes clear that they deserve special consideration.

One of the biggest reasons is seasonal adjustment. The BLS presents both seasonally adjusted and unadjusted numbers; the seasonal data is meant to help address natural fluctuations that happen each year. The technical note accompanying the reports addresses education specifically, saying “payroll employment in education declines by about 20 percent at the end of the spring term and later rises with the start of the fall term, obscuring the underlying employment trends in the industry.”

But 2020 isn’t a typical year, is it?

When one compares the adjusted numbers to the unadjusted, it becomes clear that the regular seasonal adjustments in education are relying on assumptions that ought to be challenged in a year where school districts across the country are still working out how to serve students.

Another thing to keep in mind with current government numbers is that they reflect a developing situation. The pandemic hit relatively late in the fiscal year, and many state and local governments are in the process of planning out their budgets for the coming year. So revenue loss, cost increases and the need for budget cuts — including laying off or furloughing workers — could very well increase in the coming months.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.