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How “long COVID” is impacting the labor force

Matt Levin Sep 13, 2022
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COVID has emptied out many workspaces, as people struggling with long-haul symptoms have had to leave the workforce. Getty Images

How “long COVID” is impacting the labor force

Matt Levin Sep 13, 2022
Heard on:
COVID has emptied out many workspaces, as people struggling with long-haul symptoms have had to leave the workforce. Getty Images
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It may feel like the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, but the U.S. labor market is still struggling to get over the virus. 

A new study from economists at Stanford and MIT estimates long COVID and other COVID-related health issues have caused at least 500,000 workers to leave the labor force entirely. That doesn’t include COVID-related deaths.

Allison Guy said she got COVID in February 2021. A year and a half later, she’s still not right.

“My main symptoms really are this severe fatigue that gets worse after I do activities,” she said.

Guy was a communications manager for a nonprofit. After hopping on and off her employer’s short-term disability insurance, “when it was clear that things weren’t going to change I did lose my job then, and you know … I understand it.”

Guy’s now enrolled in grad school, one that provides accommodations for her. She’s 36, and wants to work again. But many people struggling with the lingering effects of COVID — they’ve just given up.

Stanford economist Gopi Shah Goda said if anything, her study is a conservative estimate of how many people COVID removed from the job market.  

“So maybe a reasonable range might be 500,000 to a million workers out of the labor force,” she said.

Researchers identified workers who missed a week of work, likely due to COVID, and tracked where they were a year later.

She said after getting sick, older workers were especially likely to not have a job and not be looking for one, either. 

“It could be the illness was more severe. It could also be that this COVID-19 illness pushed them to retire at higher rates,” she said.

Because of remote work, companies have actually been hiring more people with disabilities since the pandemic hit, including those with long COVID. 

But Katie Bach at the Brookings Institution said a cooling economy may make employers less flexible.

“Employers have a much stronger incentive to go the extra mile on accommodation when they are struggling to fill roles,” she said.

Applying for disability benefits is hard enough. But Bach said COVID long haulers face even more hurdles.

“When you talk to long COVID patients, some of them will tell you ‘Yeah I’d love to apply, but I’m literally too brain-fogged and fatigued to make it through the application process.'”

Bach said more federal research should be devoted to treatments for long COVID. 

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