NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Only a small portion of jobs lost in the first quarter were due to outsourcing of work overseas, according to a government report Thursday that's already being questioned by critics of the Bush administration.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in its first look at layoffs due to the relocation of work, identified only 4,633 jobs that were lost due to relocation of work overseas during the first quarter.
The jobs lost to overseas relocations were outweighed by 9,985 jobs lost due to relocation of work within the United States.
And both types of relocations made up just a tiny fraction of the mass layoffs that accounted for the loss of 239,361 jobs in the quarter.
The number of jobs lost to overseas relocations equals 2.5 percent of overall layoffs in the quarter, excluding seasonal job losses, while the domestic job relocations accounted for another 5.4 percent.
The study looked at larger employers who laid off 50 or more employees during the period. There were 34 such mass layoffs during the quarter attributed to shifting work to overseas operations.
The completion of a contract is the largest reason for non-seasonal mass layoffs, according to the BLS survey, accounting for 170 layoffs and 51,795 jobs.
The shifting of jobs, particularly technology jobs, to lower-wage countries overseas has gotten an increasing amount of attention in recent months and become an issue in this year's presidential election. Democratic candidate John Kerry has proposed changes in the tax code that he argues currently benefits companies that shift work to overseas operations.
Lewis Siegel, program manager at BLS in charge of the mass layoff survey, said increased media attention about overseas and domestic job relocation helped spur the new report.
"We read the news too, we saw there's an interest," Siegel said. "We felt we could make some contribution to the discussion. We're not purporting this to cover whole spectrum of outsourcing and offshoring of jobs."
Josh Livens, an Economic Policy Institute economist, and critic of the Bush administration and corporate outsourcing of work overseas, said he is pleased the BLS has started collecting this survey data. But he's concerned it will be misused to minimize the impact of overseas outsourcing.
"It's interesting for a number of reasons, but it doesn't shed a lot of light on what's happening in the broader job creation and destruction picture," he said.
Looking at the numbers
Siegel said his survey would not indicate if an employer is setting up an overseas unit, then slowly cutting the domestic work through attrition or layoffs of less than 50 people at a time. It also wouldn't indicate if a company stops using a U.S. contractor for a service or product and starts using an overseas contractor instead.
"If they (the U.S. contractor) lay off people because of that, I wouldn't pick that because they're not the ones shifting work," he said.
Economic Policy Institute's Livens said even the relatively small number of jobs identified by the BLS study suggests outsourcing is having a significant impact on jobs.
He said that while the absolute numbers in the survey are small, they give new focus to one of the forces that has left the U.S. economy with nearly 2 million fewer jobs since the start of 2001.
"It's true that international events always explain far less than the majority of employment loss or gain. But 3 percent of a very big number is still a pretty big number," he said.
Thea Lee, the chief international economist for the AFL-CIO, said she believes the BLS report greatly underestimates the amount of jobs lost to overseas outsourcing.
"This is a survey that is anonymous and self reported -- if they're given a choice between vague company reorganization and outsourcing, they can chose to put reorganization and there will be no follow up," she said. "Another 7.2 percent refused to answer question. Those who have looked more deeply into the extent of outsourcing have found far greater use" of it.