How much of our labor force has been lost to COVID-19?
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Ken Todd of New York City got COVID-19 a year ago. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill case: a short-lived fever, flu-like symptoms and loss of sense of smell and taste. Soon, he was back taking his regular walks in Central Park.
“Felt pretty good and decided to keep walking. And then all of a sudden, I had this wave kind of come over me where it’s like, I need to go home right now,” Todd said.
Todd is 53 years old and a marathon runner. Suddenly, he needed to nap to get through the day; small tasks like doing laundry or climbing stairs were exhausting.
“I wouldn’t be able to read or look at a computer screen for more than about 15 to 30 minutes before I would start to feel off and feel sick,” he said.
It made Todd’s job in marketing for a TV network nearly impossible, so he went on short-term disability for eight weeks. Eight weeks turned into 26, then his benefits ran out. Todd was denied long-term disability by his employer’s insurance, and after using his vacation days, he is back to work part time.
“You know, I’m hopeful that in the coming month or so I will continue to improve,” Todd said. “But we don’t know yet. We’re in a bit of a limbo right now.”
More than 850,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States. They were parents, partners, friends and family. Many of them were also workers. Meanwhile, there’s a big labor shortage right now, with more than 10 million job openings. There are many reasons those jobs haven’t been easy to fill: the virus and variants, limited day care, school interruptions and people looking for more pay and better working conditions.
What’s been talked about less is how COVID and long COVID, a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act, have changed the workforce.
Through October of last year, more than 100 million working-age Americans, or people between the ages of 18 and 65, have contracted the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies show that about one-third of people who get COVID experience long-term symptoms, meaning that more than 30 million working-age Americans may have or have had long-COVID.
But how many of those with long-haul COVID left the workforce?
“My first reaction was, you know, I just, I can’t imagine this is a big deal because I haven’t seen anyone talk about it,” said Katie Bach, who has been researching this as a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“And I was just floored by how large the effect could be under pretty conservative assumptions,” she said.
Bach asked: What if long-haul patients cut their hours by 25%? She took the full-time-worker equivalent of those hours lost and added it to the number of long-haul patients who stopped working altogether. The total: 1.6 million workers, or 15% of currently unfilled jobs.
“When I saw that number, my jaw hit the floor,” Bach said. “That is an enormous impact.” And it doesn’t include workers who died of COVID or the excess deaths COVID contributed to.
“So, for example, people who stopped going to the doctor because they were afraid of the virus or because the doctor’s office was closed. And people who couldn’t get into the emergency room or couldn’t get some sort of surgery because hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID,” said Richard Johnson, who researches the economics of aging as a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
Johnson took excess deaths and COVID deaths by age and applied labor force participation rates by age. And he got 300,000 workers who died as a result of COVID. Add that to the long-haul workers, and we’ve lost 1.9 million workers — or 18% of currently unfilled jobs.
But some of those long-haul patients will go back to work. Arthur Franco recently rejoined the labor force after suffering from strokes his doctor said were caused by COVID. At the time, Franco, who’s 40 years old, was an information technology contractor in Phoenix.
“I was having issues retaining things that I would read. I would have to read an email, you know, that was like two paragraphs long, like, six or seven times,” he said.
Franco lost his job. Not long after, he lost his home and started living in his car. He’s still suffering from the effects of his strokes. And he’s had to put off heart surgery to repair a cardiac problem also caused by COVID-19.
“I can’t heal up from a possible major heart operation in the back of my car,” he said.
Franco couldn’t afford to wait for long-term disability. Applications can take six months to process. So he’s moved to Portland, Oregon, where he found a job at a nonprofit. He lost one-third of his income, but he said his employer is accommodating.
“I’ve made some huge gains, but there’s still so many things that are up in the air with my medical plans that I can’t do until other things fall into place,” he said.
And Brookings’ Bach is worried that stories like this aren’t reflected in the data we’re gathering on long-COVID and its economic burden.
“We’re basically making these cost-benefit analyses when it comes to disability policy, workplace accommodation, public health guidance, our individual actions, that are only partially informed,” she said.
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