Forget the work-from-home revolution or quiet quitting: The COVID-19 pandemic’s biggest impact on the U.S. labor market will be as a mass disability event. It’s a shock that the economy is not well prepared to handle.

An estimated 1 in 4 COVID patients experience symptoms lasting months. In principle, not all of them should have to leave the labor force. First, they should be able to call in sick. If work-impairing symptoms persist beyond a week or two, they should have the option of requesting reduced hours or claiming short-term disability benefits. Only in severe cases, lasting several months or more, should they have to transition to long-term disability insurance.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things operate in practice. Almost a quarter of US private-sector workers can’t take any paid sick days. More than half have no access to short-term disability insurance, and those that do must fight to get long-COVID claims approved. Affected workers have a right to request workplace accommodations such as part-time schedules, but employers have ample leeway to deny such requests as unreasonable.

Keeping one’s job isn’t guaranteed, either. Under at-will rules, employees can be fired for missing work, even if due to illness (rather than disability). Although federal law guarantees up to 12 weeks of job protection to people who are ill or caring for a newborn or seriously sick family member, it covers only those who have been on payroll for 12 months – which, as of 2018, was just 56% of workers.

All this adds up to a big potential hit to the nation’s productive capacity. Estimates based on Census data suggest that long COVID is keeping the equivalent of as many as 4 million working-age adults away from work – roughly the number of disabled veterans in the US. There’s no indication that the number of affected workers is decreasing as people recover: The share of employees officially out sick or working part-time due to illness, for example, keeps rising.

More COVID is coming, both short and long. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 300,000 new cases a week, and hospitalizations are again on the rise. People will keep getting sick for reasons beyond their control. And given the policies the U.S. lacks — including universal access to paid sick days, short-term disability, job protection and part-time accommodation — many will lose earnings and jobs, or end up out of the labor force completely. Given the challenges the economy already faces, that’s a loss the country can ill afford.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is an economist at the Rand Corp. and a professor at the Pardee Rand Graduate School. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.


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