Disappointing job numbers -- 126,000 added jobs in March -- put the White House on the defensive and energized President Barack Obama’s critics. Conservative columnist George Will noted how poorly Obama stacks up against Republican icon Ronald Reagan.
"During the Reagan recovery there were 23 months of job creation over 300,000," Will said on Fox News Sunday. "Reagan had a month of job creation of 1 million, and this was at a time when there were 75 million fewer Americans."
Will is correct that across President Reagan’s two terms, there were 23 months when the economy added over 300,000 jobs (the average monthly gain once the recovery took hold in March 1983 was about 250,000 jobs).
But the focus of this fact-check is Will’s claim that Reagan oversaw a month when employment shot up by 1 million. Dave Weigel of Bloomberg Politics questioned Will’s claim, and we thought it was worth examining.
We emailed Will and his assistant and did not hear back by the time we published, but there can be only one month that Will had in mind. It is September 1983.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employer data showed 1.1 million more people getting paychecks in September than in August. This would be extraordinary except for one thing.
On August 7, 1983, about 675,000 telephone workers went on strike. At the end of the month, they approved a contract and went back to work. In the interim, the Labor Department gathered its payroll data -- and, essentially, documented the effect of the strike.
"No doubt the striking workers returning to their jobs would have created a big bump in employment," said Doug Rossinow, a historian at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., and author of The Reagan Era: A history of the 1980s.
Put simply, the strike jangled the monthly job counts on both ends. It drove down the tally for August and pumped it up in September (and drove it back down for October). This graph using government data shows what happened:
The government’s September 1983 jobs report explicitly tied the 1.1 million spike to the labor dispute.
"Nonagricultural payroll employment rose by 735,000 in September," the report said. "About 675,000 of this increase, however, represented the return of employees to payrolls following settlement of strikes, chiefly that of communications workers."
Newspapers were careful not to read too much into the big number. The New York Times wrote that the recovery was gaining ground with a rise of "nearly 400,000, in the overall number of people employed."
The Labor Department did not count the striking workers as employed in August because they weren’t drawing a paycheck. But the jobs they had on Aug. 6, 1983, were waiting for them when they settled at the end of the month.
The claim that 1.1 million new jobs were added in a single month has been debunked before, as recently as January 2015.
Will said Reagan created 1 million jobs in one month.
The reality is that the jobs created by Reagan in 1983 were the result of a counting anomaly that started with a strike of telephone workers. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics rightly discounted the spike when it first reported it in 1983, as did news reports.
Will should have, too.
We rate the claim Pants on Fire.