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: Employers are desperate to hire workers, yet million of jobs remain unfilled. COVID-19 long haulers may be one missing part of the puzzle

Around 1.6 million full-time workers could be missing from the U.S. labor market because of Long Covid, accounting for some 15% of unfilled jobs, a recent analysis suggests.

When it comes to explaining why more than 10 million jobs remain unfilled, “economists have proposed a number of explanations, including a decline in workers’ willingness to tolerate low pay and poor working conditions, lack of access to child care, concerns about contracting COVID-19, higher household savings, and demographic and immigration trends,” writes Katie Bach, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Yet they rarely mention long Covid.”

Long Covid, also known as post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), among other names, is a term often used to describe post-COVID conditions in which people don’t return to their usual health status after being infected with COVID-19, or develop new or recurring symptoms after their acute illness has passed.

Symptoms range in severity. They can occur even in people who experienced relatively mild infections, and include fatigue, joint pain, headaches and “brain fog.”

Related: ‘Do I just suffer and hope things get better?’ COVID-19 long haulers face fears of reinfection, unvaccinated Americans and medical bills

Research into Long Covid is ongoing, and estimates of its prevalence vary a good deal: The World Health Organization says 10% to 20% of people have persistent or new symptoms three months after their COVID-19 infection, while a JAMA Network Open systematic review of 57 studies including more than 250,000 COVID-19 survivors found that more than half experienced PASC six months post-recovery.

Bach’s analysis cites studies estimating between 27% and 33% of COVID patients have lingering symptoms months after they were infected, as well as U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 100 million U.S. adults ages 18 to 64 had contracted the virus through October 2021 — translating to an estimated 31 million Americans of working age who may have experienced Long Covid.

‘Why don’t we hear more about it? Poor data may be the culprit; there is no clear and comprehensive source of data about how many people are not working due to long Covid.’

— Katie Bach, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

From there, Bach accounts for the possibilities that some of those people may have recovered, and adopts a conservative estimate that Long Covid patients remained sick for three months on average. She also assumes that not all of the 4.5 million people who “may have been sick at any given time over the past 20 months” would’ve stopped working. 

Ultimately, she estimates that there are 1.1 million Long Covid patients potentially out of work at any given time, as well as half a million additional Long Covid patients who may have reduced their hours. Meanwhile, 10.6 million jobs lay open in November, noted the analysis published Jan. 11. (The number of openings rose to 10.9 million in December, the Labor Department said this week.)

The symptoms associated with post-acute COVID-19 syndrome appear to impact people’s “physical and cognitive function, health-related quality of life, and participation in society,” found a recent study published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

That study, which surveyed patients experiencing this syndrome who were infected prior to vaccination, found that the number of patients working full-time dropped from 102 pre-COVID to 55 post-COVID, though the authors noted it was hard to say whether employment status was impacted by symptoms alone or pandemic-related workplace disruptions as well. 

In July, the federal government said anti-discrimination laws protect people whose Long Covid qualifies as a disability.

Read more: ‘This hellfire of a year’: COVID-19 long haulers face financial and medical uncertainty in Pandemic Year 2

Bach of the Brookings Institution, citing a lack of high-quality data on Long Covid’s impact on employment, recommended that the government add specific Long Covid disability questions to its Current Population Survey and Household Pulse Survey. The collection of this data could have important implications for disability policy and research funding, among other things, she added.

“The above estimate requires several assumptions, and so may be proved inaccurate. But the magnitude of the numbers involved suggests that long Covid merits consideration in discussions about the labor shortage,” Bach wrote. “So why don’t we hear more about it? Poor data may be the culprit; there is no clear and comprehensive source of data about how many people are not working due to long Covid.”