Opinion

What does the unemployment rate really mean for Americans?

Andy Puzder CEO, CKE Restaurants, Inc.

On December 18th, the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee announced its decision to “modestly reduce the pace” of its asset purchasing program from $85 billion to $75 billion per month. Indicating just how modest this reduction was, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surged by nearly 300 points closing at a record high. As justification for this modest reduction, the FOMC noted a number of factors indicating that “economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace,” including the fact that “the unemployment rate has declined.” Yet, the FOMC’s enthusiasm about the labor market was tepid at best.

While the official unemployment rate declined to 7 percent in November, the lowest it’s been since 2008, the FOMC noted that it “remains elevated.” Boston Fed President Eric S. Rosengren voted against the modest reduction believing that it was premature “with unemployment still elevated.” On the day the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the November unemployment numbers, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans stated that “[t]he unemployment rate [drop] probably overstates the improvement in the economy.” Fed Chairman Bernanke similarly noted in early November that “the unemployment rate probably understates the degree of slack in the labor market.” Despite the FOMC’s modest reduction, both statements are unequivocally true.

At CKE Restaurants, labor market slack shows up in our applications versus hires. Year to date we’ve received nearly 200,000 applications for about 15,000 entry level part time positions, or 13 applicants per position. Higher level positions, such as field management, average 325 applicants per position. This is a lot of slack, but at least the BLS recognizes that these people exist; they show up in the labor force as either employed or unemployed. The slack that fails to show up in the official unemployment rate comes primarily from two other sources: (1) People leaving the labor force; and, (2) treating part time jobs the same as full time jobs.

The impact of people leaving the labor force, what Chairman Bernanke refers to as “important downward trends in participation,” is straightforward: As people leave the labor force, they also leave the ranks of the unemployed reducing the unemployment rate even in the absence of job creation.

November’s labor participation rate clocked in at 63 percent. With the exception of October’s participation rate (62.8 percent), this is the lowest labor participation has been since April of 1978. Between September and November, the economy added only 83,000 people to the ranks of the employed while 265,000 people left the labor force. The unemployment rate fell from 7.2 percent to 7 percent because people stopped looking for jobs and left the labor force, a seemingly positive result caused by an obviously negative trend.  This downward trend during President Obama’s term, as noted in the chart below, has been consistent and disturbing.

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Viewed in historical context, if the labor participation rate today were the same as it was when unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October of 2009 (65 percent), the unemployment rate would be 9.9 percent rather than 7 percent. Of the individuals BLS reports as “no longer in the labor force”, 5.8 million “want a job now.” Adding these individuals to the ranks of the unemployed would increase the unemployment rate to 10.3 percent, a clear indication of labor market slack.

The second reason the unemployment rate fails to reflect the labor market’s health involves what Chairman Bernanke has referred to as “underemployment, part-time work.” The BLS considers employees working less than 35 hours per week part time. Due to Obamacare, employers have the perverse incentive to reduce existing employees’ hours to fewer than 30 per week to avoid health insurance expense. These reductions often fail to appear in the employment data. If a business has two employees, one working 33 and the other 23 hours per week, and both making $10 per hour, one employee – the one working more than 30 hours — must be provided with the expense of health insurance.

If, on the other hand, each employee works 28 hours per week, the business still has two part time employees averaging 28 hours per week and $10 per hour, so there is no change to the BLS employment rate calculation. But the business no longer has to pay the cost of health insurance for either employee.

Unfortunately, absent the opportunity to work more hours, such employees are restricted in their ability to earn more or advance their careers unless they find an additional part time job or a full time job. As noted above, good full time jobs are hard to find. Today, 7.7 million Americans are working part time because they are unable to find a full time job.

Recent trends in the employment data suggest that the number of part time employees may continue to grow. As I noted in a previous article, during the period from January 1st through July 2nd of this year, when employers were most likely to react to Obamacare’s requirement that businesses offer health insurance coverage to their employees who work 30 or more hours per week, the economy created an astounding 833,000 part time jobs but lost 97,000 full time jobs. While these numbers appear in the employment data, the official unemployment rate fails to reflect the part time dynamic as it treats part time jobs as equal to full time jobs.

BLS calculates an unemployment rate that considers people employed part time for economic reasons and people who are unemployed but have looked for work in the past twelve months (as opposed to the past 30 days) as unemployed. This calculation sets the unemployment rate at 13.2.

Americans are aware that the seemingly positive numbers coming out of Washington bear little resemblance to their actual circumstances, creating an undercurrent of distress despite apparently good economic news. According to a recent Washington Post-Miller Center poll, 74 percent of Americans believe that over the past few years it has become harder for people like them to find a good job. By the same 74 percent margin, Americans place at least some of the blame — in fact almost half (46 percent) place “a lot” of the blame — for this increased difficulty on “high taxes and regulations on business.” Even more to the point, 62 percent worry that they will lose their jobs and nearly one in three (32 percent) worry about it “a lot.” For those who make under $35,000 per year, over half (54 percent) worry “a lot” about losing their job. And the data shows their concerns are justified

Even a modest reduction to the Fed’s massive quantitative easing program is a positive as it communicates to our politicians that they cannot perpetually rely on monetary policy to boost the economy. Yet, if we’re going to have a meaningful economic recovery, we need something beyond revisions to our monetary policies. We need to nurture and encourage private sector growth and job creation. We must incentivize employers to grow and to hire while encouraging employees to remain in the labor force. We must ask whether we’ve reached a point at which well-intentioned laws and regulations designed to protect workers have become disincentives for both workers and job creators. I’m not questioning the need for or the importance of such laws. But, it is vital that we weigh the trade-off between good intentions and creating incentives that encourage both work and hiring. If we fail to do so, a declining labor participation rate and lack of meaningful job creation will be the logical and long-term results. If government continues to restrain and inhibit this nation’s dynamic entrepreneurial energies, the official unemployment rate may well decline but for our youth and unemployed, there will be no recovery.

Andy Puzder is CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which employs about 21,000 people at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants. He is co-author of “Job Creation: How it Really Works and Why the Government doesn’t Understand it.”