Job numbers rot: fewer Americans working fewer hours

Job creation rose from an initial 113,000 in January (later revised to 129,000) to 175,000 in February. The January number frightened many, while the February number was cheered—even though it was below the prior 12-month average of 189,000.

The labor market’s strength and economic activity are better measured by the number of total hours worked than by the number of people employed. An employer who replaces 100 40-hour-per-week workers with 120 20-hour-per-week workers is contracting, not expanding operations. The same is true at the national level.

The total hours worked per week is obtained by multiplying the reported average workweek hours by the number of workers employed. The decline in the average workweek for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls by 3/10ths of an hour—offset partially by the increase in the number of people working—means that real labor usage on net, taking into account hours worked, fell by the equivalent of 100,000 jobs since September.

Here’s a fuller explanation. The job-equivalence number is computed simply by taking the total decline in hours and dividing by the average workweek. For example, if the average worker was employed for 34.4 hours and total hours worked declined by 344 hours, the 344 hours would be the equivalent of losing 10 workers’ worth of labor. Thus, although the U.S. economy added about 900,000 jobs since September, the shortened workweek is equivalent to losing about one million jobs during this same period. The difference between the loss of the equivalent of one million jobs and the gain of 900,000 new jobs yields a net effect of the equivalent of 100,000 lost jobs.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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    Because both the reported “total hours worked per week” and the so-called “job-equivalence number” are based average workweek hours, they understate any variance from previously reported figures. If newly hired workers are working more hours than previous averages, the increase would be understated by the averaging and the economy and the employment gains would actually be better than was reported. On the other hand, the opposite is also true. If newly hired workers are working a lesser number of hours, the amount of the reduction is also similarly understated, and the trend, as is currently the case, is actually worse than reported.

    Unfortunately (some would say this is by design), the latter is the case as employers shift workers new and old to lower weekly hour schedules to avoid additional labor costs imposed by Obamacare.