The record gain of jobs in May would not have come as a surprise to those looking at a data set for employee schedules, which also shows that employment growth has continued over the last month, according to a St. Louis Federal Reserve analysis.
Central bank economists said in a blog post this week that employment may have been down 8.75% relative to the start of January during the week of June 5, using a data from a scheduling company called Homebase to estimate how many people have returned to work. That would be an increase of more than 3 percentage points from the week of May 15, which is the week reflected in the most recent nonfarm payrolls report.
The U.S. economy added 2.5 million jobs in May, according the Labor Department, easily beating expectations for a loss of millions of jobs. The department technically uses the 12th of the month as its survey week.
Maximiliano Dvorkin, a senior economist at the St. Louis Fed who conducted the analysis, told CNBC in an interview that it was best to be "cautious" when drawing big conclusions from limited data sets like Homebase's, but its focus on the service sector was helpful.
"The sample is not representative of the whole U.S. economy, but at the same time I would say it's an advantage because you do want to get a good sense of how fast those industries that were most affected are recovering," Dvorkin said.
The difference in employment is not the same as the unemployment rate, which came in at 13.3% in June. That was much better than Wall Street expectations, with economists projecting nearly 20%, but it still reflected unemployment much higher than at any point during the Great Recession that ended 11 years ago. However, as the difference in employment relative to January shrinks, the unemployment rate should come down.
The correlation between the data from Homebase, which covers 60,000 businesses and about 1 million hourly employees in service industries, and the data from the Current Population Survey was 0.82, the economists said, with the Homebase data tending to show higher job gains.
The Labor Department's jobs report, typically released on the first Friday of every month, reflect data from the middle of the preceding month. That puts more current data sets like Homebase's at a premium in this crisis because forecasting the economic picture even a month ahead is so difficult, said John Johnson, CEO of Edgeworth Analytics.
"We are all desperate for immediate information because the situation is so extreme. But the other point is when you're in such an extreme situation, you can have pretty wide swings that appear to be unexpected, but some of it is just we're in such uncharted territory that it's hard to kind of know," Johnson said.
Dvorkin said the central bank relies on a broad range of data sets to judge economic activity and would continue to monitor how the new relationship between Homebase and employment data performs.
"We don't trust 100% just one piece of data. We pull information from different indicators, and then we make our own conclusions," he said. "So this is a new tool which we are using. It has performed well very recently, and we will continue evaluating how it performs in the future and adjust if we need to."