Things to Consider when Using the 2020 American Time Use Survey

By Kelsey J. Drotning

Curious about how COVID-19 has affected time in leisure, sleep, work, and family activities in the United States? The 2020 ATUS will provide some clues. Data from the 2020 American Time Use Survey (ATUS) were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on July 22, 2021. The data have been harmonized with previous ATUS surveys by the IPUMS team, released on July 30, 2021. The 2020 ATUS provides a window into how daily lives shifted in response to COVID-19 pandemic conditions and the corresponding economic recession via 24-hour time diaries. Potential research topics include, but are not limited to:

• What, where, and with whom people spent their time post-onset compared to pre-onset of the pandemic
• Differences in daily activities by gender, race, ethnicity, nativity, age, parental and marital status, household composition, employment status, education.
• How daily activities, such as work, time with children, school, commuting, socializing and sleep changed as social distancing restrictions were enacted, lifted or maintained across U.S. states

However, the COVID-19 pandemic had implications for the ATUS. Here are some issues researchers should consider when preparing the 2020 ATUS data for analysis:

There was a gap in data collection. ATUS data were not collected between March 18 and May 9, 2020. Because of this, 2020 ATUS data represent 10 months of 2020—January 1 through March 17 and May 10 through December 31—rather than the entire year.

Sample sizes are smaller. The ATUS sample is drawn from the outgoing rotation of the Current Population Survey (CPS). While the CPS did not stop data collection during the pandemic, in-person components of the survey shifted to phone interviews. While some in-person interviews have resumed, response rates have been lower than average since March 2020, decreasing the pool of potential ATUS respondents. This does not appear to have greatly affected the distribution of responses across demographic groups (see Table 1 below).

Weights are not compatible with previous years. Due to the gap in data collection, a new weight variable has been created called WT20. This weight represents only the days for which data was collected. It has also been created for the 2019 ATUS data to facilitate comparison between 2019 and 2020. If analyzing multiple years of the ATUS, keep in mind the WT06 weighting variable is not compatible with the 2020 ATUS data. We will update our documentation as we get more information about how to analyze 2020 data in conjunction with 2003-2018 ATUS data.

COVID-19 specific questions were added to the CPS. The BLS added 5 questions to the CPS beginning in May 2020. While these questions were not asked as part of the ATUS, researchers may access these data alongside ATUS data via IPUMS.

Table 1. 2019 and 2020 Sample Size by Selected Demographic Characteristics.*

 2019 (N=9,435)2020 (N=8,782)
American Indian0.52%0.77%
Less than high school14.32%13.58%
High school27.49%27.23%
Some college24.18%23.07%
BA or more34.01%36.12%
Labor Force Status
Employed – at work60.45%57.12%
Employed – absent 2.69%3.17%
Unemployed – on layoff0.23%0.93%
Unemployed – looking3.28%3.70%
Not in Labor Force33.34%35.08%
* All estimates are weighted.


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