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State workers cram during 'benchmark' time on unemployment data

Think of tax season for accountants or final exam cramming for students, and you get a sense of what Florida's unemployment agency goes through during "benchmark" time.

Up to five staffers inside the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation toil up to five months on the tedious task of revising the state's unemployment data. The last two weeks, it's all they do.

• They pore through unemployment compensation tax records from Florida employers to get firm employee head-counts.

• They make corrections where an employer may have used the wrong county code or wrong industry code on a tax form.

• On-site inspectors from the Atlanta office of the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics spend two weeks in Tallahassee to grill them.

As for vacation time? "Nope, not during benchmark," said agency chief economist Rebecca Rust. "You can't tell the feds you need an extra week."

When they're done, they wind up with a far more accurate picture of Florida's work force than they solicit through monthly reports based on the federal government's household surveys and employer surveys.

Florida has gone through the benchmark revision process for at least 40 years. It's standard procedure in every state — but these aren't standard times.

Last year, when Florida revised its numbers, it made the shocking discovery the state was actually shedding jobs in the latter part of 2007 instead of posting recurring monthly job gains as it had reported.

This year, staffers found the state had overlooked tens of thousands of job cuts during the recession. For December, given the changing population base used by the state, the unemployment rate was adjusted down, from 8.1 percent to 7.6 percent. That dramatized Friday's announcement of a one-point jump in January to a rate of 8.6 percent.

This year, there was an added wrinkle involving professional employer organizations, or PEOs. The companies, which handle payroll and other personnel tasks for other companies, often have a large percentage of their employees based away from their headquarters.

Historically, the state has struggled to accurately account for their payroll changes. For instance, if a Tampa PEO adds a worker in Miami, that employee might erroneously be counted as part of the Tampa work force.

After hammering out agreements with some large PEOs, the state's revision more accurately tracks where the companies have added and cut jobs across the state, Rust said.

State workers cram during 'benchmark' time on unemployment data 03/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 6, 2009 11:06pm]
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