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Ex-acting Labor secretary defends BLS in the wake of jobs report misclassification error

(CNN) The former acting head of the Labor Department under the Obama administration said he believes a "misclassification error" in the May jobs report, which may place the real unemployment rate higher than the one touted by President Donald Trump, was not done intentionally to make the White House look better, and defended the Bureau of Labor Statistics as "career professionals."

In its monthly jobs report released Friday, the BLS showed the US unemployment rate fell to 13.3% in May, as the economy gained 2.5 million jobs. Capitalizing on the good news, Trump took a victory lap Friday, touting the lower unemployment numbers as the nation deals with health and economic crises and major protests over racial injustice.

BLS, however, noted its data collectors — for the third month in a row — misclassified some workers as "employed not at work," when they should have been classified as "unemployed on temporary layoff."

Barring that issue, the unemployment rate could have been as high as 19.2% in April and 16.1% in May, not including seasonal adjustments, the BLS said.

"I fear that because this was a fairly serious misclassification that people are going to hatch a bunch of conspiracy theories around it. They shouldn't do that," Seth Harris, who served as acting Labor Secretary under President Barack Obama, told CNN's Fredricka Whitfield on Saturday.

"I don't think the folks at BLS are trying to cook the books or make President Trump look good. They're career professionals. They take their craft very seriously. They're trying to do the best they possibly can in a very complicated situation," he added.

He commended the BLS for being "transparent" about the error, saying it was the "right way to respond."

The US Census Bureau employees collects demographic data on workers that goes into the BLS report, calling around 70,000 households a month.

And like so many businesses and government agencies across the US, the BLS and Census Bureau have had to make adjustments to its workflow amid the pandemic.

Harris told CNN on Saturday that he believes the mistake likely arose from BLS not providing the interviewers, who classify the workers during the survey process, with "clear enough guidance."

"BLS and our partners at the Census Bureau take the misclassification error very seriously, and we're taking additional steps to address the problem," BLS said in a "frequently asked questions" document released Friday.

A White House official pushed back Saturday on suggestions that the May jobs report is any less encouraging due to the inclusion of a "misclassification error."

The official noted the error has appeared in previous reports, and said that even after correcting for the error, the drop in unemployment from April to May remains significant.

"It's only now with the release of a positive jobs report that these critics emerge," the official argued.

Business shutdowns and closures due to the coronavirus have led to historic job losses. The US is now in the process of gradually reopening, allowing new jobs to be added to the economy.

The BLS also noted in its May jobs report that response rates to its surveys have been lower than usual during the pandemic, a factor that could lead to bigger revisions in the future.

CNN's Annalyn Kurtz, Anneken Tappe, Sarah Westwood and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.