Changes to the Labour Force Survey (LFS) in 2021

Table of Contents

    1. In general

    After the Labour Force Survey went through a major methodological reform in 2017, including the transition to a panel design and the introduction of new ways of data collection, a new questionnaire was implemented in 2021. The changes to the questionnaire are the result of a new European framework regulation (Regulation (EU) 2019/1700) that applies to the data collection of different surveys in the field of social statistics. This framework regulation provides for a complete revision of the list of variables for the Labour Force Survey and a more uniform way of measuring certain essential concepts, such as the labour market status or working hours. The aim is to increase comparability at European level.

    The changes in the new questionnaire are diverse. A number of variables were deleted because they have become less relevant or because the information is available in administrative sources. Other, new questions were added. Sometimes, the order of questions or the frequency of questioning (annual versus quarterly) was changed. In a number of cases, the wording of an existing question was also changed or the answer modalities were modified, but efforts were made to keep this to a minimum. Nevertheless, this means that the data before 2021 are not always comparable with those for 2021 and later.

    An essential part of the new questionnaire is the measurement of the labour market status. The new framework regulation brings this measurement in line with the adjusted operational definitions of employment and unemployment of the International Labour Office (ILO) (see point 2). In addition, Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, is striving for more input harmonisation through the legal imposition of flow charts that are supposed to ensure that the different EU member states interpret and measure the essential concepts determining the labour market status in exactly the same way (see annex II of Implementing Regulation EU 2019/2240). Eurostat also provides a model questionnaire for this question block which EU member states should follow as much as possible.

    A second important part of the questionnaire is the block designed to measure the working hours. Here, too, important changes have been made, again, with the aim to ensure a more uniform measurement among the various EU member states and thus to achieve results that are more comparable at European level.

    In this note, we elaborate on the changes in the measurement of the labour market status and how they may cause a break in the results between 2020 and 2021.

    2. Changes to the definitions of employment and unemployment

    The Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/2240 of 16 December 2019 lays down the new definitions of employed and unemployed persons. The current and previous definitions are available in the annex. The most important changes are described below.

    2.1 Employed persons

    Regarding employment, in the Belgian LFS from 1999 to 2020, all persons with a job who were temporarily absent during the reference week were included as employed, except those on full career break (or time credit) longer than three months. Lay-offs were considered working, regardless of the duration of their absence.

    From 2021, changes have been made to the classification of people with a job who are absent during the reference week. More specifically, it concerns changes in the classification of lay-offs, people on parental leave and people performing seasonal work. The first change in particular has important consequences, especially in times of crisis. According to the new operational ILO definition, people absent for 'other reasons', such as temporary unemployment (= lay-ffs), are only counted as employed if they are absent for a maximum of three months. This means that people who are temporarily unemployed (on lay-ff) on a full-time basis for more than three months, are no longer counted as employed, which, given the Covid-19 crisis, has a significant impact on the employment and unemployment rates. In T1 2021, according to the LFS, there were 80,000 lay-offs for more than three months: these are 9,700 ILO unemployed persons and 70,700 inactive persons. Persons on parental leave are counted as employed, unless they do not receive any salary or benefit from the National Employment Office (NEO) and are (or will be) on parental leave for more than three months. Seasonal workers outside the season are considered employed only if they still regularly perform tasks or chores (e.g. maintenance work) for their job or company during the off-season.

    2.2 Unemployed people

    As for the measurement of the number of unemployed people, the phrasing of the question was changed and the search methods were updated. Different from the past is that from 2021 on, no passive methods will be included in the list of search methods. Only if the respondent answers that he/she has not used any of the (active) search methods listed, the respondent is regarded as 'passively looking for a job' and therefore not as ILO unemployed. After all, the ILO definition of unemployed implies that one must be actively looking for a job.

    3. Break in the results in the first quarter of 2021

    The changes described above cause a break in the time series of the core indicators for employment and unemployment. As a result, the figures up to 2020 are no longer entirely comparable with those from 2021 onwards.

    Since lay-offs for more than three months can be isolated on the basis of the new LFS questionnaire from 2021 onwards, Statbel can calculate the impact on the employment and unemployment rates of the changed way of treating these lay-offs. For this purpose, in addition to the official employment and unemployment rates calculated according to the new definitions, alternative employment and unemployment rates are also calculated in which lay-offs for more than three months are - as before - counted among the employed.

    In the coming months, Statbel will conduct further research on the effect of other changes to the questionnaire on the results, both for the core indicators around the labour market status and for other indicators.

    4. Data collection

    4.1 Surveyed age group

    From 2021 onwards, only people between 15 and 89 years of age are surveyed. In the previous period, no explicit age limit was set, but households consisting only of persons aged 77 or over were excluded from the sampling. With the removal of this rule, the older populations are now better represented in the sample. However, the follow-up survey for people aged 75 and over who are not working is dropped. It is presumed for them that their status has not changed in the time between two surveys.

    4.2 Data collection during the Covid-19 crisis

    As part of the measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, all face-to-face interviews have been temporarily replaced by telephone interviews since the first lockdown in March 2020. The follow-up surveys are conducted - as before the Covid-19 crisis - by telephone or via the internet.

    Also as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, a number of questions were temporarily added to the survey in order to better monitor some specific trends. Most of these questions were also retained in the new questionnaire from 2021. In some cases, however, the questions had to be adapted to fit the structure of the questionnaire. Furthermore, it is also intended to delete these questions again when they are no longer relevant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    5. Annex: definitions of employment and unemployment

    5.1 Definition employed persons:

    Previously (up to and including 2020):

    The employed comprise all people aged 15 and over who:

    • (a) during the reference week performed some work for wage or salary, or for profit. This also includes family workers
    • (b) who had a job but were temporarily absent.

    From 2021 (new operational ILO definition (ICLS Resolution 2013))

    Employed persons comprise persons aged 15 to 89 who, during the reference week, were in one of the following categories:

    • (a) persons who during the reference week worked for at least 1 hour for pay or profit, including contributing family workers;
    • (b) persons with a job or business who were temporarily not at work during the reference week but had an attachment to their job, where the following groups have a job attachment;
      • persons not at work due to holidays, working time arrangements, sick leave, maternity or paternity leave;
      • persons in job-related training;
      • persons on parental leave, either receiving and/or being entitled to job-related income or benefits, or whose parental leave is expected to be 3 months or less;
      • seasonal workers during the off-season, where they continue to regularly perform tasks and duties for the job or business, excluding fulfilment of legal or administrative obligations;
      • persons temporarily not at work for other reasons where the expected duration of the absence is 3 months or less;

    5.2 Definition ILO unemployed persons:

    Up to and including 2020

    Unemployed persons comprise persons aged 15 to 74 who were:

    • a) without work during the reference week, i.e. neither had a job nor were at work (for one hour or more) in paid employment or self-employment;
    • b) currently available for work, i.e. were available for paid employment or self-employment before the end of the two weeks following the reference week;
    • c) actively seeking work, i.e. had taken specific steps in the four week period ending with the reference week to seek paid employment or self-employment or who found a job to start later, i.e. within a period of at most three months.

    The following are considered as specific steps (i.e. active search):

      • having been in contact with a public employment office to find work, whoever took the initiative (renewing registration for administrative reasons only is not an active step);
      • having been in contact with a private agency (temporary work agency, firm specialising in recruitment, etc.) to find work;
      • applying to employers directly;
      • asking among friends, relatives, unions, etc., to find work;
      • placing or answering job advertisements;
      • studying job advertisements;
      • taking a recruitment test or examination or being interviewed;
      • looking for land, premises or equipment;
      • applying for permits, licences or financial resources.

    From 2021 (new operational ILO definition (ICLS Resolution 2013))

    Unemployed persons comprise persons aged 15 to 74 who were:

    • a) during the reference week not employed and
    • b) currently available for work, i.e. were available for paid employment or self-employment before the end of the 2 weeks following the reference week
    • c) actively seeking work, i.e. had either carried out activities in the four-week period ending with the reference week to seek paid employment or self-employment or found a job to start within a period of at most 3 months from the end of the reference week.

    For the purposes of identifying active job search, such activities are:

      • studying job advertisements;
      • placing or answering job advertisements;
      • placing or updating CVs online;
      • contacting employers directly;
      • asking friends, relatives or acquaintances;
      • contacting a public employment service;
      • contacting a private employment agency;
      • taking a test, interview or examination as part of a recruitment process, and;
      • making preparations to set up a business.