Hurricane Sandy casts doubt over October employment report

The U.S. Department of Labor on Monday said it is doing everything it can to ensure that the latest unemployment figures are released on Friday as scheduled.

The approach of Hurricane Sandy has brought much of the activity along the East Coast, including the federal government, to a halt. But officials at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said they are trying to ensure that the October job report, the final one before the presidential election, comes out on time.

"The employees at the Bureau of Labor Statistics are working hard to ensure the timely release of employment data on Friday, November 2. It is our intention that Friday will be business as usual regarding the October Employment Situation Report," the department said in a statement Monday.

It remains an open question whether BLS would be able to produce the highly anticipated report amid the hurricane. The BLS said it was closely watching the storm and would announce any change of plan before the scheduled Friday release.

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A key challenge facing BLS analysts is that the job numbers, which are vital to financial markets as well as political campaigns, are kept under tight security and must be dealt with onsite. 

Normally, federal employees can handle much of their work remotely, but BLS officials must be able to get into offices to process the employment data.

"This type of stuff we don't do from home," said Cheryl Abbot, a regional economist for the Dallas BLS branch. "They've got to be in one particular room that's basically roped off."

Friday's report would be the last update on the nation's unemployment rate before voters head to the polls on Election Day.

With the economy taking center stage in an extremely close presidential race, the release of the final jobs report has been seen as a wild-card in the days before the election, potentially giving a boost to the campaign of either President Obama or Mitt Romney.  

Earlier in October, BLS reported that the nation's unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8 percent, falling below 8 for the first time since Obama took office. The economy added 114,000 jobs in September.

The September report sparked controversy after some in conservative circles suggested that the numbers had been altered to help Obama’s reelection chances. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Monday questioned whether the possible delay of the October unemloyment report is politically motivated.

“Labor Dept says may release latest Unemployment figures until after election. Par for course. Why release something might hurt Obama elect?” Grassley wrote on Twitter.

Abbot insisted that BLS will not take any political factors into account when determining when to release the report.

"That's not going to play into it at all. It's just going to be a matter of if our people can get into the office and do the work required," she said.

She added that BLS typically makes a prompt release of the report a top priority, but she noted that Sandy presents challenges.

"I’m not sure if we’ve ever missed employment situation release date, but I also don’t think we’ve also had one that fell this precisely in line with a national catastrophe," she said.

— This story was first posted at 12:14 p.m. and has been updated.

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