July 2014

Public workforce programs during the Great Recession

This article uses data from the recently compiled Public Workforce System Dataset to assess the response of selected federal workforce programs to the 2007–2009 recession. The analysis indicates that these programs responded quickly to the economic downturn, providing timely relief for a large number of unemployed workers. Supplemental funding secured through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also enabled federal workforce programs and state agencies to pay benefits for longer durations and to offer expanded training and reemployment services to program participants.

This article examines the operations of federally funded public workforce programs during the Great Recession of 2007–2009. More workers lost their jobs during the recession than in any previous economic downturn since World War II. As a result, a record number of job seekers participated in federal workforce programs. Unemployed workers seeking reemployment relied heavily on unemployment insurance (UI), labor exchange and other reemployment services, and job training. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), in partnership with states and local entities, provides these services through the UI system, the Wagner–Peyser Act Employment Service, and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs.

The UI system offers eligible unemployed workers cash assistance for up to 26 weeks in normal times and longer during economic downturns. The Employment Service provides job matching and job referral services, as well as other reemployment services, such as help searching for jobs, writing resumes, and honing interviewing skills. The WIA adult programs provide more intensive job search assistance and job training to dislocated workers and economically disadvantaged adults. Additional federally funded programs—including WIA Youth and Job Corps for young people, Trade Adjustment Assistance programs for workers displaced by foreign competition, and the Senior Community Service Employment Program for low-income workers age 55 and over—offer employment assistance, but these programs are not included in the analysis.

Public Workforce System Dataset

DOL has statutory authority to collect data for each of its major public workforce programs. As a condition of receiving grants from DOL, each state (plus the District of Columbia and certain U.S. territories) is required to submit reports on a regular basis. Program reports have generally been used by individual programs, primarily for program management and program performance purposes. Only recently has DOL attempted to compile these reports in one place for analytical and research purposes. In 2009, DOL created the Public Workforce System Dataset (PWSD), which assembled data back to 1995 for the federal programs described above.1 For the analysis in this article, the original database was updated to the third quarter of 2011 for the UI and Employment Service programs and to the first quarter of 2011 for the WIA adult programs; the update captured the most recent data available at the time.

Reporting requirements vary by workforce program. Of the programs considered here, the UI program requires states to submit the greatest number of federal reports on a wide variety of program-related benefit and tax issues. States submit UI reports to the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), part of DOL, at different frequencies—weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually. The data used here are from the monthly ETA 5159 and ETA 9048 reports, which collect information on UI claimants and reemployment services activity. The primary Employment Service report, used for the Labor Exchange Reporting System, is the ETA 9002 report, which states submit quarterly. State workforce agencies participating in the WIA programs submit individual participant-level data through the quarterly (and annual) ETA 9090 and ETA 9091 reports, called Workforce Investment Act Standardized Report Data. States also submit a number of financial reports to DOL. The PWSD assembles these data on a quarterly basis. All figures in this article are based on quarterly PWSD data, while the tables are based on annual data from multiple sources.2


1 An early version of this dataset is available to the public at

2 The figures in this article were originally developed by Randall W. Eberts and Stephen A. Wandner for their chapter “Data analysis of the implementation of the Recovery Act: workforce development and unemployment insurance provisions,” in Burt S. Barnow and Richard A. Hobbie, eds., The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: the role of workforce programs (Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2013), pp. 267–307,

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About the Author

Stephen A. Wandner

Stephen A. Wandner is a visiting scholar at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and a visiting fellow at the Urban Institute.

Randall W. Eberts

Randall W. Eberts is president of the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.