Long COVID and Missing Workers

In late October, I argued that some of the ‘missing workers’ were missing not by choice, but by necessity: long COVID meant they were unable to work–or work certain jobs. Then in December, we began to see unprecedented COVID-related effects in employment data, over the short-term, and possibly long-term, in those who had to miss work due to illness. And shortly after that, news outlets started covering the long COVID problem, estimating, as I had in October, that somewhere around a million plus people were unable to work.

Now the Brookings Institute has released a report arguing the same (boldface mine):

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that through October 2021, just over 100 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 have contracted COVID-19. And studies suggest that between 27% and 33% of COVID-19 patients still experience symptoms months after infection. That means 31 million working-age Americans—more than one in seven—may have experienced, or be experiencing, lingering COVID-19 symptoms.

It may not be the case that all 31 million are still sick; some may have recovered. Understanding how many people have long Covid at any given time requires an assumption about average illness duration. In the U.K., which is doing a much better job collecting data than the U.S., more than 70% of people with persistent COVID-19 symptoms have been sick for more than three months, and more than one-third have been sick for at least a year. This chronicity is consistent with other post-viral illnesses, which behave similarly to long Covid and often last for years.

To be conservative, this analysis assumes the 31 million long Covid patients stayed sick for an average of three months. That means that about 4.5 million may have been sick at any given time over the past 20 months.

Not all of these 4.5 million people would have stopped working. Two studies of long Covid patients found that 23% and 28%, respectively, were out of work due to long Covid at the time of the study. That suggests there may have been about 1.1 million Americans not working due to long Covid at any given time.

Additionally, some long Covid patients reduced hours rather than taking time off: 46% according to a study in The Lancet. That is another 2.1 million workers. If those workers reduced their hours by only a quarter, that would increase the labor market impact to 1.6 million full-time equivalent workers. In other words, under reasonable assumptions given the data available, long Covid could account for 15% of the nation’s 10.6 million unfilled jobs.

Like so many policies over the last forty years, I think we (or some of us, anyway) will realize after the fact just how bad it was to have a de facto policy of Let ‘Er Rip. Then again, those who made the policies are far less likely to be affected by them, so this is, unfortunately, par for the course.

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