They count the unemployed by the applications for benefits, but if I decide to rejoin "the workforce" by looking for a job, I don't call the state to let them know. How do they count newly active job seekers? Do they have a camera pointed at my couch? —Paranoid
They do have a camera pointed at your couch, but it's strictly for laughs—the employment stats are derived by more scientific means.
First, forget that business about applications for unemployment—as anyone who's ever taken a dump in their boss's backpack can tell you, not all of the unemployed collect benefits.
Instead, the feds rely on an ongoing effort called the Current Population Survey, where census workers call a scientifically selected sampling of Americans to ask them about their employment status. In other words, they use a poll. Oregon uses this data, combined in a complicated way with numbers from the Local Area Unemployment Statistics program, to create the figures you hear.
Anyway, if census workers get an unemployed person on the phone—and say what you will about the unemployed, they're usually at home—they'll ask if that person has looked for work in the past four weeks, which is the accepted standard for "actively seeking employment." If you say "no," congratulations: You're not unemployed! Instead, you're a "marginally attached worker" (more accurately, "non-worker"), and you don't count toward the unemployment total.
The downside to this neat bit of statistical trickery is that sometimes these statistical non-persons decide to start looking for work again, as happened in Oregon last month. We (I use the term loosely) created 15,000 jobs, but the employment rate still rose 0.1 percent due to 17,000 new workers in the labor force. So do us a favor—don't look for a job unless you're sure you'll find one.