Workers Out Sick

More workers have been out sick this month than ever before in U.S. history. This is the result of a holiday-related spike in COVID-19 cases, along with other infectious diseases. The number off work includes many more workers than those who are actually sick. Some workers with no symptoms are home because of exposure to COVID-19 or a positive test indicating an infection. On the other hand, there are also a great number of workers continuing to work — generally from home — despite a positive test or minor symptoms.

On any given day this month it is estimated that about 1 in 20 workers who would have worked that day is not working because of illness or the possibility of infection. The good news about this is that the economy has generally continued to function in spite of the gaps in the work force. It is not all good news, though, and it has been hard to keep everything in sync with so many workers out.

The most visible problems are delays in projects, empty shelves in supermarkets, and delays in deliveries, with the longest delays in delivering packages to homes.

Worker deaths are also disrupting work. Roughly 1 in 3,000 U.S. workers will die this month from COVID-19 in addition to the usual rate of worker deaths from all other causes. Work that depended on a specific worker who died comes to a stop until a new plan can be put into place. The work that is impacted is essentially random.

Everyone who is indirectly affected may experience degrees of fear, confusion, and uncertainty, emotions that tend to slow work down. Consumers are also affected by this uncertainty, not knowing whether they will be able to make purchases as planned or not.

Epidemiologists expect the impacts of the current pandemic wave to start to decline next month, but it could be a long time before they return to pre-December levels. Businesses will have to get used to this new kind of uncertainty and confusion, but the worst of this is probably happening right now, and most businesses seem to be taking the current difficulties in stride.

The experience, as unfortunate as it is in the moment, will be valuable someday. When future global problems result in a large number of absent workers, we will be able to refer back to this month to see what we did to cope.

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