People@Work: Winter's Blasts Affect Not Only Hiring but Output, Too

It's hard to fathom that something as mundane as weather could affect employment statistics. But January's wintry blast of snow and ice appears to have contributed to a mismatch in employment trends that left some economists scratching their heads following Friday's employment report.

The fresh data showed that the nation's employment rate had tumbled six-tenths of a percentage point to 9% last month to the lowest level since April 2009. But the economy created only 36,000 new jobs, well below what's needed each month just to keep up with new entrants into the workforce. It isn't clear where the separate household survey found that some half-million Americans found jobs, but they apparently did.

What's evident is that winter storms did play a role in slowing hiring in some professions, such as construction, transportation and warehousing, industries in which some 70,000 jobs were cut. "The thumbprints of the weather were all over this report," Neil Dutta, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, told the Associated Press.

Revisions Will Tell a Truer Story

When it comes to the minuscule number of jobs created, Steve Blitz, a senior economist for ITG Investment Research, told The New York Times, "You can blame weather for the number being as low as it is."

Labor experts will likely have better insight into last month's hiring when revisions to January's figures are released next month along with February jobs data. Until then, stay tuned.

Of course, foul weather doesn't affect only hiring. The season's blast of winter storms hit business and employment in another way, too: productivity. Recent heavy snowfalls or ice storms have prevented some workers from getting to work and forced some employers to shut down altogether.

Weather isn't the only source of reduced worker output. As it does each year, the National Football League's final football game of the season, the Super Bowl, is a huge source of distraction and often reduces productivity. Whether it's chatter about expectations in the weeks ahead of the big game or the Monday-morning quarterbacking that's likely to take place all across workplaces today, workers are apt to be less productive than they'd otherwise be.

"A Whole Bevy of Distractions"

Politics, too, can play a role in keeping workers idle. The unfolding events in Egypt, where a massive uprising against the current government is ongoing, have also been eating into productivity. And the sources of distraction can be myriad. From news reports on TV to first-hand accounts broadcast via Twitter to friends posting messages of concern on Facebook, they conspire to keep workers' attention away from the job at hand.

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"This month is offering a whole bevy of distractions," says John Challenger, CEO at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based employment-services firm. Concern about events or situations that make it harder for employees to stay focused on their work, he says. "Certainly, employers are concerned about distractions."

While political and sporting events may take their toll on worker productivity, they aren't nearly as likely to result in workers not showing up to work at all, as in the case of bad weather.

A good example was last week's blizzard in the Chicago area, where some businesses and school districts were shut down for two days or more after as much as 20 inches of snow fell. The subsequent closings could eventually register in productivity figures, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In its monthly reports, the agency notes items, such as extreme weather, that may have affected worker output.

Telecommuting Beats Icy Roads

Fortunately for employers, the fallout from reduced productivity caused by missing or distracted workers isn't long-lasting. Over time, it has a short-term impact, Challenger says. Further, technology can help reduce downtime by, for example, allowing housebound employees to work from home.

Unless a job requires a worker's physical presence, telecommuting is one way for many workers to still get work done without endangering themselves on slick roads. Employers are always on the lookout for ways to counteract events that can reduce productivity, Challenger says, adding that they learn and adjust over time.

Still, it's unlikely that employers will soon adopt practices that allow employees to work from home or take a day off to deal with the all-too-common hangover that frequently accompanies Super Bowl madness.