Long Covid could be keeping as many as 4 million Americans out of the workplace
Long Covid is continuing to have a substantial impact on the world of work. Around 34 million Americans have experienced long Covid since the pandemic began in 2020, with around half still experiencing ongoing symptoms.
As precautions have eased, and Covid cases increased, the risks of long Covid continue. For many employers, this means employees on long-term sick leave and a tough labor market with limited talent options.
What is long Covid?
Long Covid is the term used to describe symptoms of Covid-19 that last for four weeks or more after having a confirmed case of Covid-19.
Whether someone gets long Covid or not, does not seem to depend on how severe their initial symptoms were but many are experiencing symptoms substantially over and above three months.
Like Covid, there are a variety of symptoms such as respiratory issues, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and brain fog and most patients are experiencing a variety of symptoms with different levels of severity.
Around 16 – 17 million working-age Americans have long Covid which equates to about 8% of the workforce. This figure equates to around half of the adults who have reported long-Covid (the other half have recovered).
Is there a cure?
As the symptoms are so broad, and long Covid is still not widely understood, there is no specific cure.
However, some symptoms are easily treatable while around half of working-aged adults who reported long-Covid have already recovered.
As we are only in our third year of Covid-19, it’s impossible to know if some people will have long Covid forever or not, but we do know that many are recovering.
How does long Covid impact work?
For those with milder symptoms that are easily controlled and employers who are making reasonable adjustments, many have been able to remain employed.
Unfortunately, in many cases, long-Covid has impacted work.
The numbers are patchy, with an estimated 20-22% of people with long-Covid unable to work at all due to ill health, and a further 16-45% working reduced hours.
Not all of these people will have been employed in the first place. Assuming the current workforce participation rate of 75%, around 4 million of those with long Covid were not in work prior to the pandemic.
Of those who have reduced their hours, the average reduction in hours is 10 hours or 25%.
Depending on the source of data, between 2 and 4 million additional full-time equivalent workers are out of work in the US due to long-Covid.
How could this impact the employment market?
This means that there is a reduction in labor force participation, although to what degree is still to be confirmed.
In the UK, labor force participation has reduced by 1.3% since the pandemic, while 25% of companies report long Covid as one of the main causes of long-term staff absence. Similar patterns are already being seen here in the US.
For many Americans who are out of work due to long-Covid, there is no access to paid sick leave. 27% of private sector workers lack any form of access to paid sick leave and for vulnerable workers earning the bottom 25%, 48% do not have access to paid time off.
How can employers support employees with long Covid?
Improving access to paid sick leave could reduce the spread of the virus (as workers will not be coming into work while unwell) and limit the risk of long Covid moving forward as well as improving lower-income families’ economic security.
Employers are being encouraged to provide accommodations to retain and safeguard their employees.
Remote work, flexible work, and better work-life balance has increased the amount of disabled Americans who are able to participate in the labor force by about 13% since 2020, and similar measures could support even more Americans disabled by long-Covid back to work.
The Department of Labor has already confirmed that long Covid can qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so those employees are eligible for workplace accommodations.
It’s worth noting that for many employees experiencing long-Covid, this could be their first experience of a disability, so signposting the support available and suggesting accommodations could open up work to those who had ruled out a return to work.
It is also vital to know where you currently stand. If your workplace data only records long-term sick leave, ensure that long-Covid is recorded and flagged. Without this knowledge, it’s impossible to know what you can be doing as an employer and who for.
How long-term the impacts of long Covid are is still unknown, but by safeguarding current employees and making basic accommodations, employers can continue to grow their staff numbers effectively.