Family Tree Friday: Were you at work? The 1940 Census employment status (Part 1)

This week’s post comes from guest blogger Diane Petro, who is an Archives Technician in the Archives I Research Support Branch (RD-DC), Research Services, Archival Operations – Washington, DC.  Diane helps staff the research rooms at the National Archives Building and has also been working on reference activities relating to the upcoming 1940 Census release.

Photo caption: Oakland, California. Lockheed Testing Program.  Waiting for routine interview before being tested for employment at Lockheed Aircraft factory, April 23, 1940.  (ARC ID 532194).

Grandpa Tiffany remembers that he didn’t work a day in 1940.  He said that he and Grandma Tiffany struggled all year.  They even had to take in boarders to make ends meet.  So why isthere a “yes” in column 21 which ask if this person was at work the week of March 24-30, 1940?

Well, let’s take a minute and see if we can get to the bottom of this by looking at the employment status columns.  Seventeen questions pertain to employment in the 1940 census, and because of widespread government projects during the Depression there are two categories of work: those at work for pay or profit and those on public emergency work during the week of March 24-30, 1940.

Columns 21-24 addresses those two categories and requires a “yes” or “no” answer.

Column 21 asks if this person was at work for pay or profit during the week of March 24-30, 1940.  If there is a “yes” in this column, the person performed work, full-time or part-time during the week. For example, a doctor’s or lawyers professional services may have been available at any time during the week, but he may not have actually performed any such service or received any fees.  Note that if “yes” is entered in Column 21, then column 26 must indicate the number of hours the person worked during that week.


Column 22 asks if the person was not at work, was he assigned to public EMERGENCY WORK (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during that week.  For census purposes, even if you were assigned to public emergency work, you were still considered unemployed.  Note that if “yes” is entered in column 22, then column 27 must indicate the duration of unemployment in the week/or weeks up to March 30.  Grandpa should have a “no” in column 22 and column 27 will be blank.


Column 23 asks if the person was seeking work.  A person was seeking work if he was making an active effort to secure a job, or a business or professional opening.  For example, did he register at an employment office, contact a prospective employers, or answer an advertisement?

Column 24 is for people who have jobs, businesses, or a professional enterprise, which they were temporarily absent from the week of March 24-30.  It also includes a person who was temporarily ill, but had a job that he was returning to on his recovery.  Only 2.5 percent of the population reported having a job, but not being at work.  Keep in mind that the labor force in the 1940 census is defined on the basis of the activity during the week of March 24-20, and includes only people who were at work with a job, seeking work, or on public emergency working that week. In earlier censuses, gainfully employed workers were those reported as having a gainful occupation regardless of whether they were working or seeking work at the time of the census.

Now let’s take a look at Grandpa Tiffany’s census information.


 In column 21 he has a “yes” and column 22 is blank. Look at column 26 and see the number of hours he worked the week of March 24-30.  The column shows zero hours.  So grandpa was at work, but worked no hours . . . . hmmm . . . . in that case, we need to take a look at his occupation in column 28.  His occupation is listed as radio repairman, this means that he was available for work, but he may not have performed any services during that week.  This can explain why there is a “yes” in column 21.

Remember the boarders that grandpa and grandma Tiffany took in? Check to see if they are listed in the household.  If there were five or more lodgers listed, this was considered employment, and could be another reason why there is a “yes” in column 21.

We hope this helps with your research.  Stay tuned for more tips from our 1940 Census series of blog posts!

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