Jobs are increasing, but long COVID-19 may be keeping people out the labor force : The Indicator from Planet Money Headaches, fatigue, trouble breathing...the lingering health effects of COVID-19 continue to haunt millions of Americans, and the labor market, too.

Long COVID and the labor market

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC’S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong.

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

And I'm Adrian Ma, and today is Jobs Friday. We got news today that 315,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy in August...

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MA: ...Even as the unemployment rate rose a little. That was largely driven by more people wanting to return to work.

WONG: And while the total number of jobs has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the data also showed that the size of the labor force is still smaller than it was before COVID - close to 3 million people smaller.

MA: So where are they? This is a question that has nagged at us at THE INDICATOR for months, and it has also haunted economists and people who study the labor market - people like Katie Bach.

KATIE BACH: There have been a whole number of narratives - everything from people don't want to work to unemployment insurance was too generous to people are leaving bad jobs.

WONG: Katie's been trying to pin down another explanation for the missing workers, and that is workers have left their jobs or cut back their hours because they're struggling with long COVID. They still have symptoms for months after infection.

MA: Today on the show, we'll look at how researchers like Katie are trying to account for the impact of long COVID on the labor market. Plus, we'll also meet one of those affected workers.

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MA: Jen Porter used to work as an organic chemist. She analyzed soil and water samples for this lab in Billings, Mont. And often those samples would get put into this, like, foot and half long glass, onion-shaped container.

JEN PORTER: That involves a lot of shaking, a lot of getting those molecules out of there.

WONG: So you mean literally shaking?

PORTER: Yeah, like, just shaking like this.

(LAUGHTER)

WONG: OK, so...

PORTER: ...A lot...

WONG: ...You're holding your hands about a foot apart, and you're just, like, kind of, like, waving them from side to side.

PORTER: Yeah.

MA: As you might imagine, this is not work that can be done from home. So when the pandemic hit, Jen kept going to the lab every day. But then in September 2020, she got sick.

PORTER: I was cooking bacon on a Saturday morning, and I go, oh, I cannot smell this bacon. I went to take a bite, and I could not taste the bacon. Within 24 hours, I had a high fever. I didn't feel like I could get out of bed. It was hard to breathe. And so - sorry, I don't - I didn't even think that I would tear up a little bit recalling this, but it was a lot, like, physically. So I felt just kind of, like, not in control of my own body.

WONG: Jen got two weeks of paid sick leave. At the end of the two weeks, her contagious symptoms had subsided, so she dragged herself back to the lab. But when she would get home at night, she would be too tired to cook dinner or take care of her pets. Jen's also a single mom, and she and her 9-year-old son used to go hiking and camping together. She couldn't do that anymore either.

MA: A couple of months later, Jen was hit with a migraine at work, which made her collapse. And following advice from her doctor, she says she tried asking for reduced hours from her employer, but that request went nowhere. And in the meantime, she was still getting migraines and body aches and fatigue.

PORTER: I had to do something as soon as possible to get myself to a point where I could rest.

WONG: In September 2021, a year after first getting sick, Jen quit her job at the lab. She became one of the ranks of COVID long-haulers who left their jobs for health reasons. And while there's been lots of anecdotes like Jen's, trying to calculate the number of workers in this group has been a big challenge for researchers like Katie Bach.

BACH: At the time - this was back in the end of 2021 - I mean, we just had nothing in the way of data.

MA: Katie's a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, and she says COVID deaths did affect the labor force. More than a quarter-million working-age Americans lost their lives. But she's been focused specifically on this issue of long COVID and the labor market. And when she started to dig into that, she found a lot of clues, but nothing that gave her that eureka moment of, oh, here are all the missing workers.

WONG: Take, for example, labor force participation. This is the percentage of people 16 or over who are either working or actively looking for a job. This rate is down about a percentage point from pre-pandemic levels, so that points to people leaving the labor force.

MA: Some of that decrease is due to retirements and also a drop in immigration.

WONG: Meanwhile, the labor participation rate for people with disabilities went up significantly during the pandemic. So did the overall number of disabled people in the U.S. This suggests to Katie that there could be people with long COVID who stayed in the labor force. They didn't leave, but maybe they reduced their hours.

BACH: So then you might say, OK, well, have the percentage of people working part time gone up? Like, not really. But again, that doesn't necessarily mean anything because it's potentially easiest for people who are already part time to reduce their hours. It's, like, layers and layers of complexity.

MA: Adding to this complexity is that Katie did not think that the U.S. Census Bureau, which surveys and collects labor data - and it's where we get our data for Jobs Friday - she didn't think that the Census Bureau was fully capturing the number of people with long COVID. She was worried that there were people with these persistent symptoms who - because of the way the census questions were worded, they wouldn't be counted as having a disability or as being too ill to work.

WONG: But that changed significantly in June, and Katie got some of the data she needed. The Census Bureau started asking directly about long COVID in one of its household surveys. People can now report if they've experienced symptoms for three months or longer that they didn't have before getting the virus - symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, and changes in taste and smell.

MA: So with this new data, Katie crunched the numbers, and she estimates about 16 million working-age Americans have long COVID.

BACH: Then obviously the question is, well, how many of those can't work because long COVID could just mean I haven't recovered a sense of smell? It could also mean I literally can't get out of bed.

WONG: So for the next step, Katie looked at a few different studies on long COVID and workers. She used that data to calculate her own estimate for the American labor force. And she thinks she might have found some of the missing workers. Two to 4 million full-time equivalent workers could be out of work due to long COVID - a little less than 2% of the civilian workforce.

MA: Now, Katie uses the term full-time equivalent because some of those workers might have been full time and then gone down to part time. Or maybe they were already part time and then cut their hours even more.

BACH: This isn't as simple as a bunch of people got sick and disappeared from the workforce. The pandemic has reworked the landscape of work, and we're seeing a lot of impacts of that.

WONG: Katie checked her numbers with an economist at Harvard who's also been looking into this issue. His estimates line up with Katie's calculations on the number of affected workers.

MA: Still, Katie has gotten pushback on whether she overstates the size of the problem. She admits there's still a need for more and better data, but she also hopes her findings can help catalyze a push for better policies around paid sick leave and accommodating workers with long COVID.

BACH: People need a better safety net. To me, the economic argument of this is let them take the time off to rest, to invest in health, to hopefully get better. Let them take the time off and continue to earn money so they can afford health care that can get them back to work.

WONG: Which really would have helped out people like Jen Porter in Billings, Mont. She's the one who quit her full-time job as a chemist when she couldn't get the rest she needed. Today, she makes jewelry at home and sells it online.

PORTER: I just put it on.

WONG: She makes pieces like this long, beaded necklace.

PORTER: I have a Pixiu ring. And Pixiu is the deity for gathering wealth and prosperity in China.

MA: Now, Jen says she can adjust her hours and her pace based on how she feels.

PORTER: That's supposed to bring prosperity and good luck and business.

WONG: You shouldn't sell that one. Keep that with you.

PORTER: (Laughter) I have plenty.

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WONG: Heads up - we will not have a show on Monday for Labor Day. So maybe to mark the occasion, you could listen to some previous INDICATOR episodes about the labor movement.

MA: Yeah, it's not called Chill at the Beach Day, folks. OK, so this episode was produced by Nicky Ouellet and engineered by Robert Rodriguez. It was fact-checked by Catherine Yang. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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