Long COVID could be keeping 1.1 million workers sidelined amid the labor shortage

Nearly 900,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, a shocking statistic even more than two years into the pandemic. The economic shock of such a calamity has resulted in a historic labor shortage that economists still don’t quite understand.

One of the pandemic’s biggest mysteries, the symptoms of “long COVID,” may be playing a huge part in the millions of missing workers.

At least 100 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 have contracted COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, and millions of survivors have reported lingering effects from the virus, ranging in severity from annoying to entirely debilitating. We still know very little about long COVID, but researchers are now projecting that it could be more widespread than initially thought—and it could be making a significant dent in employment. 

Between 27% and 33% of COVID-19 patients still experience symptoms months after infection, studies show. That means at least 31 million working-age Americans might have experienced, or are still experiencing, long COVID symptoms. And that’s a conservative estimate, Katie Bach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the impact of long COVID on the workforce, told Fortune.

If you assume the lingering symptoms last three months, Bach said, still a conservative estimate, that means about 4.5 million may have been sick while testing negative for COVID at any point over the past 20 months. Two separate studies found that 23% to 28% of long COVID patients were out of work because of their symptoms—so roughly 1.1 million Americans are not working due to long COVID.

An additional 46% of long COVID patients, or 2.1 million workers, have reduced their working hours, according to a study in The Lancet. If you add up all the reduced hours to the long COVID sufferers who are out of work, it’s the hourly equivalent of 1.6 million workers.

Economists often invoke the Great Resignation to explain the decline in the labor force, an exodus that was spurred on by a mass reevaluation of priorities due to the extreme mindset shifts caused by COVID-19. Workers increasingly want better pay and benefits, to spend more time with family, and to feel fulfilled by their jobs, the theory goes. Higher household savings that came from an increase in unemployment benefits and long quarantines also help explain why people aren’t working. 

The U.S. is expected to add 150,000 jobs in January, but a report Wednesday showed that payrolls at U.S. companies fell by 301,000 last month, the most since April 2020, according to ADP Research Institute. The labor participation rate, meanwhile, is still well below where it was before the pandemic, down about 1.5 points from January 2020. 

The long COVID numbers affecting employment “were just so much bigger than I thought they could be,” Bach told Fortune. “Those suffering from long COVID could account for more than a third of the drop in workforce participation.” 

Those who suffer from long COVID have trouble deciding whether to apply for disability pay or Social Security, she added, and the burden of proof is confusing and steep. “It’s confusing with long COVID because you don’t know how long it will last. Applying for disability is a huge effort. Sometimes it’s easier to just take a month of unpaid leave,” said Bach. 

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