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Employment status

Codes and Frequencies

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EMPSTAT indicates whether persons were part of the labor force--working or seeking work--and, if so, whether they were currently unemployed. The variable also provides information on the activity (e.g., doing housework, attending school,) or status (e.g., retired, unable to work) of persons not in the labor force, as well as limited additional information on those who are in the labor force (e.g. members of the Armed Forces, those with a job, but not at work last week). See LABFORCE for a dichotomous variable identifying whether a person participated in the labor force.

In the CPS, individuals' employment status was determined on the basis of answers to a series of questions relating to their activities during the preceding week. Those who reported doing any work at all for pay or profit, or working at least fifteen hours without pay in a family business or farm, were classified as "at work." Those who did not work during the previous week but who acknowledged having a job or business from which they were temporarily absent (e.g., due to illness, vacation, bad weather, or labor dispute) were also classified as employed, under the heading "has job, not at work last week."

Because the CPS is designed to measure unemployment in the civilian population, the original employment status variable in the survey classifies members of the armed forces as NIU (Not in universe).

Unemployed persons make up the third element of the labor force. Individuals were coded as unemployed if they did no work for pay or profit, did not have a job from which they were briefly absent, and either reported looking for work as their major activity during the previous week (for 1962 through 1993) or answered yes to a question about whether they had been looking for work in the past four weeks. People who were temporarily laid off from a job were also classified as unemployed. A separate CPS variable specifying whether an unemployed person had worked before or was looking for a first job was used to distinguish between "experienced" and "inexperienced" unemployed persons in IPUMS-CPS.

Persons who were neither employed nor unemployed fall into the residual category, "not in labor force." Such individuals might be retired, disabled due to an illness lasting at least 6 months, occupied with other activities such as attending school or keeping house, or convinced that they are unlikely to find employment (discouraged workers).


Along with shifts in the variable universe, EMPSTAT is affected by changes resulting from survey redesign in 1994. From 1962 to 1993, interviewers asked an initial "ice-breaker question" about the individual's "main activity" during the preceding week, with question wording ("Were you keeping house/working/in school or something else?") dependent on the subject's age and sex. The Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that this initial question encouraged underreporting of part-time work by women prior to 1994. Changes in the survey questions in 1994 may also affect the number of workers classified as unemployed due to temporary lay-off. Prior to 1994, such individuals were identified only by their responses to an open-ended follow-up question about the reason for having a job but not being at work during the preceding week ("Why were you absent from work last week?"). Beginning in 1994, the question was reworded as, "Last week, were you on layoff from a job?"

The 1994 survey redesign also affected the type of information available on persons not in the labor force. From 1962 to 1993, the open-ended "major activity" question was coded with four major categories ("keeping house," "unable to work," "retired," "other (specify)") for persons not in the labor force; the specific detail available in the data varies across years. In 1994, the only information available on such persons was that they were not in the labor force. From 1995 forward, persons not in the labor force were grouped into three categories: retired, disabled, and other. These categories reflect the inclusion of specific questions about retirement ("Are you (still) retired") and disability ("Does your disability continue to prevent you from doing any kind of work for the next 6 months?").

Comparison between LABFORCE and EMPSTAT over time: LABFORCE and EMPSTAT share a common universe in the CPS. As a result, the "not in labor force" categories in EMPSTAT and LABFORCE (code "3" in EMPSTAT, general codes, and code "1" in LABFORCE) are the same. LABFORCE places those respondents who are gainfully employed and those who are unemployed, but part of the labor force (i.e. looking for work), into one category (code "2"), while EMPSTAT divides them into employed (code "1") and unemployed (code "2"). The sum of EMPSTAT categories "1" and "2" will be the same as LABFORCE code "2."

Comparability with IPUMS-USA

For full discussion of changes in the EMPSTAT variable in IPUMS-USA over time, analysts should consult the IPUMS-USA documentation. After 1960, EMPSTAT is basically comparable in IPUMS-USA and IPUMS-CPS, apart from differences in the variable universe in the two datasets. The universe for employment-related questions is persons age 14 and older prior to the 1980 census, and persons age 16 and older beginning in 1980. In the CPS, the corresponding restriction for the EMPSTAT variable is age 14 through 1987 and age 15 beginning in 1988.


  • 1962-1967 (ASEC): Persons age 14+ (pre-1968 samples do not include persons under age 14).
  • 1968-1988: Persons age 14+.
  • 1989+ 2017: Persons age 15+.


Years Jan Feb ASEC Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
1962 – 1975 - - X - - - - - - - - - -
1976 – 2016 X X X X X X X X X X X X X
2017 X X X X X X X X X X X - -