Many Women Are Hidden From Unemployment Numbers, Study Says

People held back from full-time work due to child care or family obligations are considered "voluntarily" unemployed. That removes many workers — especially women — from closely watched economic data.

Randa Jama, a wheelchair attendant at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, would be referred to as a "voluntary" part-time worker in the jobs data produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). She only works weekends, spending weekdays caring for her children, in large part because she couldn't afford a babysitter without much better hours and pay.

Though Jama says she would prefer to be working full-time, that information doesn't filter through to the nation's monthly employment report. The same goes for many other workers — almost a million, mainly women, one advocacy group estimates — who can't work the full-time hours they want to, and aren't classed alongside other unemployed or underemployed people in official data.

The distinction comes from a question, asked as part of the BLS population survey, about underemployment caused by "economic" or "non-economic reasons." It classes factors like child care as non-economic reasons people aren't working more hours - and commonly refers to these workers as "voluntarily" part time.

"The number of people working part time for economic reasons is a closely watched economic indicator," reads the interviewer's manual for the survey, as "a measure of underemployment and of the inability of the nation's economy to generate the types of jobs desired."

Those working part-time for "non-economic reasons" (sometimes referred to as "voluntarily" part-time) are not watched the same way.

"They reflect personal, rather than business, reasons for working part time," the manual says. It means measurements of the economy's ability to create full-time work could be overlooking many part-time working women who are not working full-time because of a lack of child care, or other family obligations.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, argues that while the terminology "economic" and "non-economic" is correct, describing workers in need of child care as "voluntarily" part time is misleading.

"What we're trying to measure is the strength of the economy," Baker told BuzzFeed News. "For that, they're asking the right question: 'If the economy were stronger, would these people have jobs?' But if the economy were stronger and these women still didn't have child care, they still wouldn't be working full-time."

Baker said the unemployment numbers also don't account for women who would like to be working full- or part-time, but aren't actively looking for work because they can't afford child care. Similarly, workers who are part-time because of transportation issues — such as an inability to get to and from jobs in the suburbs — would be counted as "voluntarily" part time for "non-economic reasons," despite wanting full employment.

A recent study by the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), a liberal advocacy group, estimated about a million women want to work full-time but can't due to these "voluntary" reasons.

"In theory the economy could be robust enough where these women could have their needs met," said Aditi Sen, a CPD researcher who co-authored the study. Policymakers may put less focus on full employment for women, she argued, if the official statistics don't include their desire for full time work.

Justin Wolfers, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and professor at the University of Michigan, said that the BLS isn't hiding any data.

"There's no doubt that above and beyond the people we count as unemployed there is slack at a number of margins," he said, giving the example of jobless workers who are not actively seeking work but who would take jobs if they were offered them. This group is also not included in the top-line numbers of the jobs report.

Wolfers said the BLS publishes extensive data and statistics on those margins, adding that the CPD report may not be a "reflection on the current moment, but something that's been going on."

Karen Kosanovich, an economist with the Current Population Survey program at the BLS, said the survey asks those who are working part-time for non-economic reasons if they would prefer to be working full time, but their answers are not released with the jobs report data.

"The reason for part time work and the desire for full time work are separate," said Kosanovich. "They're asked in separate questions, and we don't have any tables that include that [latter] information."

The last time the BLS population survey questions were revised was back in 1994. New questions helped capture a population of workers that previously went unrecorded.

"The biggest thing the new questions caught were women and men working at the part-time margin, especially women doing work outside the home," said Brad Hershbein, a visiting fellow at The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institute.

Both Hershbein and Baker said adding new questions in the BLS survey could help capture the growing share of contemporary workers with irregular schedules — such as those moonlighting as an Uber driver for 15 hours a week. They could show more people in the workforce working part-time — with ramifications for overall data on unemployment — just like the questions added in the '90s did.

"They made these changes [to the survey] to keep up to date with who's working and what work looks like now, but they haven't updated it in 20 years," Hershbein said. "And it turns out the way they asked the questions increased the labor force participation."

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