Persistent COVID-19 symptoms could be keeping millions of Americans out of the workforce.
Economists and policymakers have struggled to figure out why a much lower percentage of working-age adults are in the labor force than before the pandemic.
The number of Americans either employed or looking for work eclipsed its pre-pandemic level in August, according to Labor Department data released Friday. But the labor force participation rate remains 1 percentage point below its February 2020 level, a gap roughly equivalent to 1.6 million people.
A smaller labor force hasn’t kept the U.S. from adding jobs at a rapid rate since mid-2020. The U.S. has replaced all 21 million jobs lost to the pandemic, with nearly 3 million jobs added this year alone, and brought the jobless rate down near pre-pandemic levels.
Even so, thousands — if not millions — of Americans could be on the sidelines of the rapid recovery because they’re still too sick from prolonged COVID-19 symptoms to work.
“We don’t know what proportion of people are having very debilitating symptoms with a lot of certainty,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
“But we know that it is happening to some people and we know that each infection seems to increase the chances of it happening,” she continued.
Experts say it’s tough to know for sure how many Americans suffer from “long COVID,” a general term for symptoms of COVID-19 that last weeks or even months after an infection.
Common symptoms of long COVID include persistent shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue and difficulty concentrating — all of which can make work difficult in most fields and impossible in some.
Roughly 16 million working-age Americans said they had long COVID in a June survey conducted by the Census Bureau, but it’s unclear how many of them are still too sick to work.
Kathryn Bach, a nonresident senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank, analyzed the data and estimated anywhere from 2 to 4 million long COVID sufferers could be sidelined by their symptoms.
“I don’t think anyone who’s seriously looking at this thinks that long COVID is not a big problem,” Bach said in a Thursday interview.
“But when it comes to the labor market impact, the specific numbers do matter and we don’t have the data right now to get to those numbers,” she continued.
Bach is one of several experts who say the U.S. needs to collect better data about the prevalence and severity of long COVID. She said it’s important to differentiate between long COVID sufferers with frustrating symptoms and those with symptoms so severe, they’re unable to rejoin the labor force.
A study published by the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis in July found that roughly 25 percent of those who get COVID-19 experience long-term symptoms, and one-fourth of those long-haulers reported symptoms severe enough to limit their work hours. While a majority of long-haulers remained employed, they were 10 percentage points less likely to be employed.
“We’re about 1 percentage point overall below where the trend would suggest we are,” Bach said. “If half of that were long COVID, and I’m not saying it is, that is absolutely impacting people’s ability to hire.”
Long COVID may not be the only factor keeping labor force participation below pre-pandemic levels. Many older workers who retired during the pandemic may be well-off enough to stay out of the workforce, while others with health conditions may be wary of coming back while the pandemic still poses a threat.
But experts say the U.S. must contend with a long-term increase in the number of Americans unable to work because of their COVID-19 symptoms.
“We know enough to know it’s a problem, right? We know enough to know that we have an historically tight labor market. Let’s talk about what we can do about it,” Bach said.
She pointed to ways that could make workplaces more accessible for anyone with a disability, which includes reducing stigma over asking for accommodations and expanding telework options.
Raifman added that reducing COVID-19 infections is also essential to reducing long COVID cases and making workplaces more accessible to those who aren’t infectious but are still dealing with symptoms.
“It’s a moment for leaders to invest in people and those investments have a huge return,” Raifman said.
“A lot of people when they miss work due to COVID do not have enough food to eat. A lot of businesses don’t have enough employees to keep the business running, so a lot of essential services ended up having high school students and National Guard members stepping in and substitutes when they didn’t have enough people to run.”