People have a 'long social distance' due to COVID-19.  Economists say this contributes to a decline in labor force participation.

People have a ‘long social distance’ due to COVID-19. Economists say this contributes to a decline in labor force participation.

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, a desire for social distancing still prevents some people from returning to work. It’s a decision, say medical experts, that everyone should make for themselves, based on their own circumstances. Some economists say, however, that people withdrawing from work due to the pandemic can also impact the country’s economic output.

Knowing that COVID-19 has not gone away, some people are not yet ready to let their guard down, according to a working paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Some 13% of American workers said they would continue social distancing as the economy opens up and cases drop, and another 45% said they would do so in a limited way. Only 42% said they planned a “full return” to the activities they participated in before the pandemic.

The study, titled “Long Social Distancing”, found that workers’ reluctance to be near others – which in many cases is prudent, especially for those with underlying conditions or elderly parents – cut labor participation by 2.5 percentage points in the first half of 2022 compared to what economists normally expect to see. This translates to a potential annual output of $250 billion, down nearly 1 percentage point.

The report’s authors define long social distancing as “persistent behavioral responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, whereby (some) people avoid face-to-face encounters in public places, including the workplace and transportation. in common “. The article was written by Steven J. Davis, professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business; Jose Maria Barrero, professor of finance at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo in Mexico; and Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University. All three are part of WFH Research, a project examining the shift to remote working.

Workers still have reason to worry about COVID-19. Cases and hospitalizations in the United States are on the rise and intensive care units are filling up again, a trend that could signal the end of the stable period that the United States experienced during the fall months. Many states, including New York, Utah and California, have seen a higher rate of new cases.

The daily average of new cases in the United States rose 28% on Monday from two weeks ago, to 53,019, according to a New York Times tracker. The number of daily cases admitted to intensive care units increased by 21% to 4,136 during the same period, while the number of daily deaths from COVID-19 fell by 11% to 261, according to the newspaper. .

New omicron subvariants quickly replace previous ones. The most recent release of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 sublines of the BA.5 subvariant accounted for 62.8% of all cases in the United States at the time. during the week until December 3, exceeding the 13.8% of cases caused by BA.5.

These difficult first months of COVID-19 have also provided a rare opportunity for people to reassess the role of work in their lives.

According to the CDC, hospitalizations and deaths associated with COVID-19 are significantly higher among unvaccinated adults — especially adults 65 and older — than among those who are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Those difficult early months of COVID-19 — when millions of people worked from home and hospitals in the United States and elsewhere filled with coronavirus patients — also provided a rare opportunity for people to reassess the role of work in their lives. And despite recent layoffs in the tech sector, many people now have leverage: unemployment is falling and wages are rising as companies struggle to attract and retain workers.

Writing for the Guardian last month, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said the world was never in a better position to end the pandemic that has killed nearly 6.5 million people and infected more than 600 million, but he also warned that many people around the world are still suffering from “prolonged suffering”, he wrote, with symptoms that persist for months.

“While the pandemic has changed drastically due to the introduction of many lifesaving tools, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, the impact of a long Covid for all countries is very serious and requires immediate and sustained action equivalent to its magnitude,” Tedros wrote for the newspaper, which recently launched a new series called “Living with long Covid.”

Read also : Report finds Americans with long COVID losing billions in wages, as Moderna sues Pfizer and BioNTech over mRNA patents

In November, the share of working-age people in the US labor force fell for the third month in a row. Some 186,000 people left the labor force in November and the participation rate fell to 62.1% from 62.2% the previous month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced on Friday. This figure has yet to recover to the February 2020 level of 63.4%.

The authors of the National Bureau of Economic Research report analyzed the results of WFH Research’s monthly survey of working conditions and attitudes, which was launched by a group of economists in 2020 in response to the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on working life. The survey polls nearly 27,500 US residents between the ages of 20 and 64 who have recently worked. The authors looked at results from February to July 2022 and focused on people who had earned at least $10,000 in 2021.

About one-fifth of respondents who were not in the labor force during the week the survey was conducted said fear of catching COVID-19 or other infectious diseases was the main or secondary reason for which they were not currently working or looking for work.

“It is more common in the elderly, women, the less educated, those who earn less, and in professions and industries that require many face-to-face encounters,” the researchers wrote. “Individuals who intend to pursue social distancing have lower labor market participation – unconditionally and subject to demographics and other controls.”

Read also : ‘We’re so exhausted, exhausted, overworked and tired’: Women plead with Congress to act on paid vacations and increased child care costs in emotional hearing on Capitol Hill

Some 17.6% of respondents with a high school education or less showed a tendency towards strong “long social distancing,” compared to 12.8% of those who had completed college, 8.9% of graduates college and 7.6% of those with a graduate degree. diploma. Similarly, workers earning the least money were more likely to miss work due to their desire for social distancing.

People reporting a strong desire to maintain social distancing are more likely to work in jobs that require face-to-face encounters, the study found. At the start of the pandemic – and before vaccines became available – millions of office workers could work from home, while many low-wage workers were most at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Long social distancing rates are about 3 percentage points higher among Democrats than Republicans and are even higher among those who identify as independents or members of smaller political parties, the researchers found. “Across multiple dimensions – education, income, industry and occupation – long, strong-form social distancing is more common when there are fewer remote work opportunities,” they added.

Businesses have struggled to find workers to fill positions over the past 12 months, particularly in the service and labor sectors. Labor shortages have driven up wages and contributed to high inflation rates for 40 years. And two groups of workers have yet to return in earnest – those aged 20 to 24 and those over 65 – the study concluded. Experts say that unless these workers return to the workforce, hiring will continue to be difficult and labor shortages will persist.

This story has been updated to include data on COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.


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