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Class of Worker

Class of worker categorizes workers according to the type of ownership of the employing organization. This variable identifies whether the respondent is self-employed, works in the private sector, or in government. The class of worker category is, in most cases, independent of industry and occupation. The Census Bureau currently uses nine basic classifications for class of worker: private for-profit and private not-for-profit, local government, state government, and federal government active duty U.S. Armed Forces or Commissioned Corps (for government workers), self-employed not incorporated and self-employed incorporated (for self-employed), and unpaid family workers. These basic categories are sometimes aggregated for different publications and purposes.

The primary sources of class of worker data are currently the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Puerto Rico Community Survey (PRCS), which collect the detailed data previously covered by the decennial census long forms until 2000. The ACS has collected class of worker data since the first survey in 1996. For the Island Areas—the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and American Samoa— the Island Areas Census, which uses a form based on the ACS and modified for these areas, is still the main data source.

Data on government employment and payroll is collected separately by the Census Bureau on surveys of governments themselves—analogous to business establishment surveys—rather than households. Please see the Census Bureau Governments Division site for more information.

Why We Collect these Data

This question describes the work activity of the American labor force. Data are used to formulate policy and programs for employment, career development and training, and to measure compliance with antidiscrimination policies. Mandated reports for Congress on the labor force rely on the analysis of these characteristics. Further, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) uses this information, in conjunction with other data, to develop its state per capita income estimates used in the allocation formulas or for eligibility criteria in many federal programs such as Medicaid and plans to use the county-level information to develop its county and state per capita income estimates.

Information about class of worker is also important for creating jobs as companies use these data to decide where to locate new plants, stores, or offices. Agencies use these data to plan job-training programs. Federal agencies use these data in litigation where employment discrimination is alleged. Locally, data are used to estimate the demand for staff in healthcare occupations and their geographic distribution based on these data.

How We Collect these Data

On the ACS, demographic class of worker data are derived primarily from answers to questions 42a. These questions are asked of all people 15 years old and over who had worked in the past 5 years. The text of these questions as they appear in the 2020 ACS questionnaire is as follows:

(Boxes located to the left of response categories)

a. Which one of the following best describes this person’s employment last week or the most recent employment in the past 5 years? Mark (X) ONE box.



  • For-profit company or organization
  • Non-profit organization (including tax-exempt and charitable organizations)


  • Local government (for example: city or county school district)
  • State government (including state colleges/universities)
  • Active duty U.S. Armed Forces or Commissioned Corps
  • Federal government civilian employee


  • Owner of non-incorporated business, professional practice, or farm
  • Owner of incorporated business, professional practice, or farm
  • Worked without pay in a for-profit family business or farm for 15 hours or more per week

For employed people, the data refer to the person's job during the previous week. For those who worked two or more jobs, the data refer to the job where the person worked the greatest number of hours. For people who are unemployed or not in the labor force, but report having had a job within the last five years, the data refer to their last job.

In the 1990 decennial census, and starting with the 1999 ACS, a check box was added to the employer name question to be marked by anyone "now on active duty in the Armed Forces...”. This information codes for active duty military. Between 1996-1998, the ACS class of worker question had an additional response category for "Active duty U.S. Armed Forces member." In 2016, ACS underwent content testing for the class of worker, industry, and occupation questions. As a result, in 2019, ACS adopted an additional response category of “Active Duty or U.S. Armed Forces or Commissioned Corps” in the Class of Worker question to aide coders in assigning the best industry code for military cases.

The major categories into which these classes are aggregated are as follows:

  • Private wage and salary workers- This includes people who worked for wages, salary, commission, tips, pay-in-kind, or piece rates for a private, for-profit employer or a private not-for-profit, tax-exempt or charitable organization. Self-employed people whose business was incorporated are included with private wage and salary workers because they are paid employees of their own companies. Published tabulations sometimes present data separately for the basic classes: "employee of private company workers" (a salaried employee in the for-profit sector), "private not-for-profit wage and salary workers," and "self-employed in own incorporated business workers." Also, “employee of private company workers” and “self-employed in own incorporated business workers” are often reported together as “private-for-profit wage and salary workers”.
  • Government workers- This includes people who were employees of any local, state, or federal governmental unit, regardless of the activity of the particular agency. Often, the data are presented separately for the three levels of government. The government class of worker categories include all government workers, though they may work in industries other than public administration. For example, people who work in a public elementary school or city owned bus line are classified as local government workers.
  • Self-employed in own not incorporated business workers- This includes people who worked for profit or fees in their own unincorporated business, profession, or trade, or who operated a farm. This class is often tabulated together with the following group, unpaid family workers.
  • Unpaid family workers- This includes people who worked without pay in a business or on a farm operated by a relative. Note that, on tabulations with earnings data, unpaid family workers may have earnings. This can be either from a second job (class of worker is assigned based on the job accounting for the most hours worked) or from previous employment (because the earnings reference period is the past year, while for class of worker it is the previous week). 

Comparing the Data across Time and Data Sources

Data on class of worker, industry, and occupation are collected for the respondent’s current primary job or the most recent job for those who are not employed but have worked in the last 5 years. Other labor force questions, such as questions on earnings or work hours, may have different reference periods and may not limit the response to the primary job. Although the prevalence of multiple jobs is low, data on some labor force items may not exactly correspond to the reported occupation, industry, or class of worker of a respondent.

In addition, beginning in 2006, the population in group quarters (GQ) was included in the ACS. Some types of GQ populations have class of worker distributions that are different from the household population. The inclusion of the GQ population could therefore have a noticeable impact on the class of worker distribution in some geographic areas with a substantial GQ population.

Page Last Revised - November 20, 2021
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