Mar 15, 2023
How has long COVID affected Canada’s workforce?
After today’s jobs data, assumptions that the BoC won't hike further are hanging by a thread: Mendes
COVID-19 can lead to chronic health issues that last months or years after a person’s initial infection, and lingering complications that have upended formerly healthy people’s day-to-day lives could have broader implications for Canada’s workforce, new research and economic data suggest.
Data gaps persist when it comes to the full scope of post-COVID chronic illness in Canada’s labour force, but some researchers say ripples in the labour market could be significant, and should be kept in mind by economic policymakers who are trying to make sense of Canada’s pandemic-era employment data.
WORKING-AGE ADULTS, WOMEN MOST AFFECTED
A federal task force led by Canada’s chief science advisor on the post-COVID condition in Canada published a report this month that called long COVID the “long tail” of the pandemic, and said socio-economic implications of the post-COVID condition could be “far-reaching.”
Millions of Canadians have been infected with COVID-19 over the last three years, and the federal report estimated that about 1.4 million people are living with long-term symptoms – though that number may be an undercount, as many people may not have had a diagnosis for their initial infection or long COVID symptoms.
Women are considered more at-risk than men of developing long COVID, the report said. Working-age adults make up the majority of people suffering from the condition, and returning to work too soon after being sick can complicate their recovery.
The task force’s report said return-to-work arrangements for people with long COVID should be flexible and adapt to the “non-linear recovery” for people with lasting physical and cognitive difficulties.
It also called for coordination between employers and insurance providers to accommodate people’s recoveries from long COVID
A spokesperson for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association said it’s had frequent discussions with members about long COVID, but the industry has reported “minimal impact” to disability claims from the condition. That’s because some people may be working through their illness, and different primary disabling conditions are used on physician forms, so “there is not a record of it being a ‘long COVID’ claim.”
Data on long COVID in Canada’s labour market is “sparse,” the federal report said, but it contended the illness’ effects could be “profound” based on numbers reported elsewhere in the world.
Some economists have picked up on clues in Canada’s existing labour data that suggest long COVID could be keeping more people out of the workforce.
CIBC economists published a report in January that looked at evidence of a “sicker workforce” in Canada than the one that existed in 2019. They argued that Canada’s low unemployment rate is partly due to employers hiring more people to remain productive because more employees have been off sick.
Andrew Grantham, one of the economists behind the report, said the worker illness picture has started to improve since the fourth quarter of last year, though working hours lost to illness or family issues are still higher than pre-pandemic levels.
He highlighted other noteworthy figures from Statistics Canada’s monthly Labour Force Survey that could be attributed in part to chronic illness related to COVID-19.
For example, recent data show more people are taking a full week away from work when they call in sick, suggesting they are taking more time to recover.
There has also been an increase of about 31,000 people from 2019 who report being fully out of the workforce due to illness, Grantham pointed out, and another increase of 6,000 people who are away from work due to family responsibilities. That total figure represents about 0.2 per cent of Canada’s possible labour force, he said.
Taking everything together, Grantham said he thinks long COVID is likely at play behind the numbers, though it’s unclear exactly how much.
“It’s definitely a contributing factor, I would have thought,” he said in a telephone interview with BNNBloomberg.ca
Despite the data gaps identified in the task force report, Grantham said he considers Canada’s existing labour data fairly detailed for assessing the workplace illness picture, though he said more detail would help nail down the causes behind the trends.
“Maybe it just needs to be taken a step further to really break down what's causing this spike in illness-related absenteeism,” he said.
LONG COVID IN CANADA VS REST OF THE WORLD
The federal long COVID report referenced research from elsewhere in the world about the labour force impact of COVID-19.
England’s central bank has estimated a 1.3 per cent decrease in labour participation, partly due to the post-COVID condition. In the U.S., other research suggests up to four million people could be out of work due to long COVID, totalling annual lost wages of about $170 billion and likely contributing to the country’s labour shortage.
The Bank of Canada told BNNBloomberg.ca it’s not conducting any of its own research on long COVID and labour force participation, but it does track working hours lost to illness.
Grantham said given the data we do have, Canada appears to be faring better than other countries like the U.S. and the U.K., where more people were infected with COVID-19, particularly before vaccines were widely available.
The chief science advisor’s report said more research is needed to assess long COVID’s impact on the labour force and Canadian society at large.
In the meantime, the Bank of Canada has expressed concern that Canada’s persistently low unemployment rate could drive up inflation. Grantham said elevated levels of worker illness should be kept in mind in economic policy decisions going forward, arguing the country’s unemployment rate has likely seen a “structural shift” with COVID and related chronic illnesses seemingly not going away.
“It is a very complicated world we are living in post-pandemic, and I think one that maybe the Bank of Canada is thinking about too simplistically,” he said.