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A tale of 2 US employment surveys, at a glance

The U.S. economy added just 69,000 jobs in May, below April's gain of 77,000 and the fewest in a year. Yet the unemployment rate rose.

How did the rate rise despite a small job gain?

Because the government does one survey to learn how many jobs were created and another survey to determine the unemployment rate. Those surveys can produce results that sometimes seem to conflict.

One is called the payroll survey. It asks mostly large companies and government agencies how many people they employed during the month. This survey produces the number of jobs gained or lost. In May, the payroll survey showed that companies added 82,000 jobs, and federal, state and local governments cut 13,000.

The other is the household survey. Government workers ask whether the adults in a household have a job. Those who don't are asked whether they're looking for one. If they are, they're considered unemployed. If they aren't, they're not considered part of the work force and aren't counted as unemployed. The household survey produces each month's unemployment rate.

In May, the household survey showed that the number of people who said they are unemployed rose by 220,000. That raised the unemployment rate to 8.2 percent from 8.1 percent.

Unlike the payroll survey, the household survey captures farm workers, the self-employed and people who work for new companies. It also does a better job of capturing hiring by small businesses.

But the household survey is more volatile from month to month. The Labor Department surveys just 60,000 households, a small fraction of the more than 100 million U.S. households. The household survey showed that the number of people who say they have a job surged by 631,000 in January and 428,000 in February.

By contrast, the payroll survey seeks information from 140,000 companies and government agencies — and they employ roughly one-third of non-farm employees. The employers send forms to the Labor Department noting how many people they employ. They also provide wages, hours and other details.

Most Americans focus more on the unemployment rate, which comes from the household survey. But economists generally prefer the jobs figure from the payroll survey.

Economists note that the surveys tend to even out over time. In the past year, the payroll surveys have shown that employers added roughly 1.8 million jobs. The household surveys have shown that close to 2.3 million more people said they found work.

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