How long will COVID affect the manufacturing workforce

As U.S. manufacturers have experienced significant labor shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, various observers have attempted to explain why hundreds of thousands of production-related positions remain unfilled. By now everyone has heard the phrase “The great resignation”. Some say attitudes about work have fundamentally changed, while others trace the problem back to failed government subsidies and policies.

While new ideas about the nature of work are likely driving some of the changes in work dynamics, new research suggests that debilitating cases of long COVID among working-age Americans may also be contributing to the decline. manufacturing labor force participation rates.

An estimated 2 to 4 million Americans of working age (18 to 65) are likely out of work due to long COVID conditions, according to a study released by the Brookings Institution in late August. The think tank predicts that the annual cost of lost wages could reach $230 billion a year.

Long COVID, or post-COVID conditions, are long-term effects that can last months after infection with the COVID-19 virus, including fatigue, difficulty breathing, neurological, cardiac, and digestive symptoms, and other health problems. A US Census Bureau survey in June and July 2022 determined that about 8% of working-age Americans have long-standing COVID.

“With 16.3 million working-age Americans affected and annual wage losses totaling nearly $200 billion, the long COVID is already a significant drag on U.S. economic performance and the financial health of businesses. households. And if left unchecked, the situation is likely to get worse,” wrote Katie Bach, nonresident principal investigator at Brookings Metro, in the report. “The government should take the threat of a long COVID as seriously as the numbers show.”

Of the 10.7 million jobs open at U.S. companies in July 2022, the estimated 4 million job vacancies due to long COVID would represent about 37% of all job vacancies, according to the Brookings report.

The ongoing challenge for manufacturers

The US manufacturing industry lost 1.4 million jobs in the first months of the pandemic, but was able to fill about 63% of positions by the end of 2020, according to a study by Deloitte and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). At the end of the year, approximately 570,000 positions remained open in the manufacturing workforce.

As the pandemic becomes an enduring part of life, the struggle to fill manufacturing jobs continues. The number of open jobs in the U.S. consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry stood at 113,000 in August 2022, according to an analysis of federal workforce data by the trade group Consumer Brands Association ( CBA). On the other side of the coin, only 697 jobs were filled at CPG companies last month despite a 12% increase in salaries for positions in manufacturing facilities compared to August 2020. The vice president of communications and ABC research, Katie Denis, noted that the CPG industry is encountering “rapidly changing worker attitudes.”

Although the Brookings report did not look specifically at manufacturing, it is plausible that a significant portion of these vacancies in manufacturing operations have not been filled due to the long COVID among applicants.

Manufacturing workers are known to face higher risks of COVID-19 infection compared to workers in other types of occupations. A 2020 study of the risks of severe COVID-19 among various occupational groups in the UK found that process, plant and machine operators had a higher risk of serious illness compared to managers and senior civil servants , associate professionals and technical professions. Looking at coronavirus infection data from UK Biobank, researchers determined that 0.4% of this profession had severe symptoms of COVID-19, one of the highest rates outside of medical professions.

Researchers examining COVID-19 outbreaks by industry sector in Ontario, Canada, during the first phase of the pandemic, found that manufacturing facilities in the province had the highest number of infections compared to others. industries.

What can be done?

Brookings researchers say tackling the long-term impacts of COVID on the U.S. workforce requires a broad, multi-pronged approach to policy actions, increasing access to disability insurance, expanding leave disease, implementing better prevention and treatment measures, improving accommodations for employers, and collecting more accurate data on the impacts of the condition on the country’s labor pool.

“To give an idea of ​​the magnitude: if the population of long COVID only increases by 10% each year, in 10 years the annual cost of lost wages will be half a trillion dollars,” Bach wrote. in the report.

The White House called on the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop two reports on steps the government can take to respond to long COVID and related conditions earlier this year. Federal funds have also been injected into research into ways to prevent or improve long-lasting COVID symptoms.

Given the prevalence of the disease, manufacturing companies will likely need to factor the long COVID into their staffing efforts going forward and adjust their attendance and workplace policies to accommodate this population of workers.

Michael A. Bynum