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The White House is trying to prepare Americans for a 'distorted' jobs report

Ahead of Friday's jobs report, the White House is lowering expectations about a number they say could be hard hit by both the Omicron variant and a quirk of how the data is gathered each month.

"We just wanted to prepare people to understand...what it is an assessment of and as a result, the month’s jobs report may show job losses in large part because workers were out sick from Omicron," Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

On Wednesday, payroll processor ADP provided one of the first comprehensive pictures of the Omicron variant's impact on the labor market. The news was grim. Payrolls unexpectedly declined by 301,000 in January, representing the first drop since December 2020.

The White House is concerned that Friday’s report from the Labor Department could be also be eye-popping because of how the jobs data is gathered. The “January” number being released on Friday is actually the result of a survey taken for a week around Jan. 12 — instead of an accounting of the entire month.

The reported COVID cases fueled by the Omicron variant peaked nationally right around then.

"The most important thing we know about Friday, without knowing the number yet of course, is that the survey was taken at the very same time as Omicron caseloads were peaking," Jared Bernstein, a member of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Yahoo Finance Live on Wednesday.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about jobs and the economy at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 7, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Biden speaks about jobs and the economy at the White House in 2021. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque) (Kevin Lamarque / reuters)

To make things even more complicated for the White House, if workers are out sick and don't receive a paycheck for the week in question, they're counted as having lost their job — even if they returned the following week.

"This month is likely to be distorted," Bernstein said. He encouraged people to look at overall trends, arguing that a possible bad number Friday is more about "this measurement issue."

The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey has already found 9 million people who reported being out of work in that timeframe either because they had COVID-19 or were caring for somebody who did. That compares to around 3 million people just two weeks prior.

'An inaccurate depiction'

The U.S. economy added 199,000 jobs last month, less than expected, and less than the prior month. At the same time, the December unemployment rate improved to a fresh pandemic-era low.

Some economists estimate the January number to be similar, with private employers adding 150,000 jobs in January and the unemployment rate staying at 3.9%, according to Bloomberg consensus estimates.

But a number of analysts expect a loss, perhaps even as high as 200,000-400,000 jobs in January.

Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese has discussed the possibility of a disappointing jobs report, which Bernstein also outlined it in a Twitter thread.

Psaki called the result we are likely to see Friday “an inaccurate depiction” of the overall labor market, while Deese tried to prepare Americans “for January employment data that could look a little strange.”

This story has been updated.

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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