Did The December Cold Affect Today’s Jobs Report?

Workers clear sidewalks of snow on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, in New York. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO
Workers clear sidewalks of snow on Fifth Avenue, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014, in New York. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN MINCHILLO

Did December’s cold weather help deliver this morning’s disappointing jobs report? It’s possible.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) monthly report, the economy only added 74,000 jobs in December — a let down from an expected addition of 196,000. BLS gathers the data by surveying the economy during the week that includes the 12th day of the month. If severe weather prevents workers from coming to their jobs for the entire week, they aren’t counted as “on payroll,” which reduces the number of jobs counted in the economy.

As Steven Perlberg at Business Insider notes, the week including December 12, 2013 saw nationwide temperatures about five and a half degrees lower than normal. And cold weather can prevent people from getting work by shutting down road, air, or train travel.

The caveat is that some economists think cold plus precipitation is what really drags down the numbers. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the December survey period was relatively dry. But then December as a whole saw about 21 percent more snowfall than usual.


BLS also does a survey of households as well as a survey of businesses. And today’s household numbers found that 273,000 Americans reported having a job but not being at work because of the weather. Because the two survey’s methodologies don’t overlap, the business numbers — and thus the jobs numbers — could very well have counted those 273,000 as not on payroll at all.

Finally, it’s worth noting that each monthly jobs report is a preliminary pass at the data, and BLS will revise its numbers in the coming weeks and months.

The good news is, if the weather did help depress the payroll numbers, then it’s more likely today’s report is just a momentary blip rather than evidence of a slowing economy. The bad news is, these kinds of unusually cold temperature blips are arguably an example of the extreme weather we’ll be seeing more of with climate change.

For example, the polar vortex that froze much of the country this past week came too late to affect the week surveyed by the jobs report. But it also brought even colder temperatures. Conservatives and climate deniers eagerly jumped on the extreme cold as evidence man-made global warming isn’t happening. That trolling might have bite if the cold air over the Arctic had expanded south. But instead the cold air just moved, leaving the North Pole warmer in its wake. Global warming enters the picture because it effects different parts of the planet at different rates, with the poles warming up significantly faster. That in turn alters the jet stream, a “river” of air that flows around the northern hemisphere and has a major influence on America’s weather.

Like when you pull a string taut, but then gradually ease the tension, the jet stream becomes more wavy and unstable as the temperature difference between the Arctic and the equator becomes less drastic. That increased “waviness” means individual instances in which the jet stream pulls unusually cold air unusually far south become more common. As a result, hotter temperatures globally can actually deliver colder momentary freezes on a regional level.


It’s just one example of the many ways global warming destabilizes the climate, leading to more extreme weather of all sorts, and in turn damaging the economy.

Longer term, projections of future global warming suggest the resulting extreme weather could have a massive negative impact on the productivity of American workers.