Given the focus on supply chain shortages, it may be worth it to consider several questions. What caused the labor shortage? What impact did COVID have on laborers? What happens when companies institute vaccine mandates? How do employees feel about vaccine mandates?
With regards to the cause of the labor shortage, data from People’s Policy Project (PPP) suggests that the answer is not unemployment benefits: PPP reports that “job growth was no faster in states that ended federal unemployment assistance early, and states maintaining federal assistance saw twice as much job growth in August as states that ended the benefits early.”
Looking at job openings, PPP notes that there were 10.9m job openings at the end of July 2021—and only 8.4m unemployed people actively seeking work. PPP notes that a possible explanation of this discrepancy is people rethinking their careers rather than immediately returning to former jobs. Another issue: decreased populations “due in part to people moving across the country during the pandemic, and the death toll of COVID-19”—a death toll which, in the U.S., has surpassed 700,000. Another factor is “missing workers”—the 3.2m long-term unemployed and 2.5m permanent job losers—who took early retirements, were automated out of jobs, have been forced to quit due to lack of childcare, or who now have a long pandemic-induced period of unemployment that renders them unemployable—and we may get a better picture of why there are so few workers.
Returning to the impact of COVID, some experts suggest that may be helpful to look at mortality in workers due to COVID. One study published in PLOS ONE looked at mortality among Californians of working age from March to November 2020 by ethnicity and job. Some findings: “Across racial and ethnic groups, Latino working-age Californians experienced the highest relative excess mortality (37%) with the highest excess mortality among Latino workers in food and agriculture (59%; 97 per 100,000). Black working-age Californians had the highest per-capita excess mortality (110 per 100,000), with relative excess mortality highest among transportation/logistics workers (36%).” Food/Agriculture, Transportation/Logistics, and Manufacturing had particularly high excess mortality rates, even when compared to Health/Emergency workers—all three of those sectors had higher excess mortality, across all races, than Health/Emergency, in the time period covered by the study.
Studies on retail specifically are lacking, and unless those numbers are segmented by retail sector, they may be misleading anyway—risk for a grocery store employee, facing high volumes of customers, would be very different from risk at a store that spent several months working with curbside pickup only. Leticia Miranda, reporting for NBC News, looked at the numbers, using data from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, which found that at least 158 grocery workers have died from the virus, with at least 35,100 workers infected or exposed. That data isn’t necessarily coming from companies, and isn’t mandatory to disclose—Miranda cites Debbie Berkowitz, Worker Safety and Health Program Director with the National Employment Law Project, as explaining that coronavirus case disclosures “have largely been a volunteer effort by companies and workers who crowdsource the data.” Only in October did Amazon finally report that it had recorded almost 20,000 cases across its Whole Foods Market and Amazon locations. Between March 2020 and April 4, Miranda reports, “OSHA received about 14,000 coronavirus-related complaints in 2020 and opened only about 1,900 for inspection.” She quotes Berkowitz: “All these retail workers filed complaints and OSHA didn’t respond with an inspection. They told retailers to do what they can. It was a real abdication of responsibility.” The takeaway: These numbers could be vastly underreported, which could explain both the labor shortage and an unwillingness of workers in general to return to retail.
Another consideration, when looking at COVID-19 impact: Long COVID. Death and total recovery are not the only impacts, here. One study, published in Nature, looked at 73,435 users of the Veterans Health Administration who had COVID-19 who survived for at least 30 days after diagnosis who were not hospitalized, and 13,654 people with COVID-19 who survived for at least 30 days after hospital admission. The researchers compared these groups to, respectively, a group of VHA users who had not gotten COVID, and—in order to ensure that none of the measured effects were due to hospitalization alone—to a group of people hospitalized with influenza. They found excess burdens of respiratory conditions including respiratory failure, insufficiency, and arrest; nervous system conditions including neurocognitive disorders and nervous system disorders; sleep-wake and trauma-related disorders; chest pain and heart failure; and incident use of both non-opioid and opioid analgesic drugs. Researchers also found poor general wellbeing, including malaise and fatigue, muscle disorders, and musculoskeletal pain. This list, it should be noted, is incomplete—there were a number of further conditions suffered by those who had post-acute manifestations of COVID-19.
The researchers wrote: “Our results show that individuals who survive for 30 days or more after their COVID-19 diagnosis exhibit…a substantial burden of health loss that spans the pulmonary and several extrapulmonary organ systems; this highlights the need for holistic and integrated multidisciplinary long-term care of patients with COVID-19.” This, again, may impact the labor shortage—people suffering from the above list of conditions are less likely to be able to perform the quick-paced, physical-labor-intensive work required in retail stores and in agriculture.
So what happens when employers instate mandates? Chris Isidore, reporter for CNN, cites a survey of 300 businesses conducted by Gartner, which found that 60% of companies are going ahead with plans as if Biden’s January 4 deadline were still in place, and only around 10% of businesses planned to step back. Looking at reasons why, Isidore points to financial concerns and absenteeism: “Delta Air Lines, which has not put in a vaccine mandate, is charging its unvaccinated employees an extra $200 a month in insurance premiums. The company estimates that each employee who has been hospitalized for Covid has cost the airline an average of $50,000.” In the article, Isidore quotes Adam Galinsky, Professor of Leadership and Ethics at the business school at Columbia University: “In general business people want to get back to normal and vaccines are the quickest way to get to normal. Mandates work.” Isidore adds: “Many businesses were counting on the federal mandate to allow them to put in place rules they wanted—so they could tell their vaccine-hesitant workers they had no choice but to get the shot. They also wouldn’t have to worry about losing those workers who didn’t want a vaccine to similar-sized companies.”
Looking at actual impact of vaccine mandates, Isidore reports that companies like United and Tyson Foods that have imposed strict vaccine mandates have seen fewer than 5% of employees quit their jobs over it—and that, in fact, businesses are concerned in the opposite direction: That if they don’t mandate vaccines, they may lose employees. Brian Kropp, Chief of Research at Gartner’s HR practice, told Isidore that employees may not want to return to the office without the assurance that their co-workers are all vaccinated as well.
Taking into consideration what employees want, a Gallup poll conducted in July found that 52% favor vaccine mandates, 38% oppose them, and 10% are neutral. Jeffrey Jones and Sangeeta Agrawal, reporting on the findings, noted that this is not the first time Gallup has performed this survey—this was, in fact, the third time. Comparing the July results to the first results from May, opposition rates have gone from 39% to 38%, while in-favor rates have risen from 46% to 52%.
While there are concerns about those who may lose their job by refusing to get vaccinated, it’s also worth considering the opposite side: those who stopped working due to fear of workplace exposure, who may choose to reenter the workplace if they have reassurance that their coworkers are vaccinated. As of October 2021, Department of Labor data shows that a total of 1.287 million people did not look for work in the previous four weeks due to the pandemic.
In the initial press release announcing the ETS, the Department of Labor wrote: “Since 2020, the coronavirus has led to the deaths of 750,000 people in the U.S., and the infection of millions more, making it the deadliest pandemic in the nation’s history. Many of the people killed and infected by this virus were workers whose primary exposures occurred at their jobs. OSHA estimates that this rule will save thousands of lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations due to workplace exposure to COVID-19 over the course of the ETS.”
There are concerns to be raised about forcing people to choose between their job and their health, though some say halting the vaccine mandate does not solve the problem—it only shifts it onto immunocompromised people, in whom full vaccination and a booster may not illicit an immune response, and onto the people who live with and care for them: The Washington Post reports that 3-4% of the U.S. population, a number that includes working-age Americans, are immunocompromised, and that there is limited information regarding how these people react to the vaccine—but that there is a high rate of breakthrough cases for these people. Meanwhile, the ETS doesn’t require vaccination—it allows an alternative, wherein employees can choose to wear masks and get tested, which wouldn’t place a burden on the employer: The ETS states that employers are not required to pay for either the tests or the face coverings.