More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing is preventing some workers from returning to work.
That’s according to this working paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Some people are not ready to let their guard down, knowing that COVID-19 has not gone away. Some 13% of American workers say they will continue social distancing as the economy opens up and cases drop, and another 45% said they will do so in a limited way. Meanwhile, only 42% of those workers said they were planning a “full return.”
The study, titled ‘Long Social Distancing’, estimated that people’s reluctance to be near each other reduced work participation by 2.5 percentage points in the first half of 2022 compared to what economists would normally expect to see – which translates to $250 billion. of potential annual output, a decline of almost 1 percentage point.
The share of working-age people in the labor force fell for the third consecutive month. Some 186,000 people left the labor force in November, according to the latest government figures. The labor force participation rate fell to 62.1% in November from 62.2% the previous month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. The number has yet to recover to the pre-pandemic level of 63.4% in February 2020.
The authors of the latest NBER report analyzed the results of the “Monthly Survey of Work Arrangements and Attitudes”, which was founded by a group of economists in 2020 in response to the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on professional 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 2022 to July 2022 and focused on people who had earned at least $10,000 in 2021.
About a fifth of respondents who were not in the labor force during the week the survey was conducted said that concerns about catching COVID-19 or other infectious diseases were the primary or secondary reason for which they were not currently working or looking for work. The three authors of the article are from the business and economic departments of the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, the University of Chicago and Stanford University.
“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.”
Some 17.6% of respondents who had a high school diploma or less showed a tendency towards strong “long social distancing,” compared to 12.8% for those who had completed college, 8.9% for college graduates and 7.6% for those with a graduate degree. Similarly, workers earning the least money were more likely to miss work due to their desire for social distancing.
Those who report a strong desire to pursue 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 workers sitting at desks could work from home, while many low-wage workers were at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19.
Long social distancing is about 3 percentage points higher for Democrats than for Republicans and even higher for those who identify as independents or with 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, especially for service and labor-intensive positions. Labor shortages drove up wages and contributed to high inflation for 40 years. Two groups of workers have yet to return in earnest, those between the ages of 20 and 24 and those over the age of 65, the NBER study concluded. Experts say that unless these workers return to the workforce, hiring will continue to be difficult and labor shortages will persist.
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