America Chose Sickness, and Lost the Economy

There is no saving the economy without guaranteeing worker health.

An in-home nurse cares for a woman while she recovers from COVID-19 at her home in Baltimore, Maryland.
Arturo Holmes / Getty

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began eight months ago, politicians in Washington, particularly Republicans, and particularly Republicans in the White House, have argued that it has an either-or relationship with the economy: Either Americans tolerate some amount of viral spread and enjoy a more vibrant economy, or Americans shut down and watch the economy fail.

That was always a false dichotomy, not least because of the way the novel coronavirus is sickening the American body politic. The virus’s most direct impact on the economy and the workforce has been strangely overlooked. It is killing workers, slowing them down, pushing them to take leave from their jobs, and causing them to drop out of the labor force, hurting businesses, ruining family finances, and slowing the recovery.

The number of confirmed cases now stands at more than 9 million; roughly 225,000 people are dead and an untold number are suffering from long-term, debilitating symptoms. Research from the Integrated Benefits Institute shows that the coronavirus quintupled the number of workers claiming short-term disability benefits due to respiratory conditions from February to March; many employers are seeing significantly more disability and leave claims, costing them something like $20 billion and counting. (That is true despite job losses reducing the number of individuals eligible for benefits, and despite the fact that claims due to workplace injuries and diseases other than the coronavirus have fallen.)

Even mild cases of COVID-19 have affected workers’ ability to do their jobs and enjoy their lives, sometimes causing miserable knock-on effects on their finances. Benjamin Walmer is a New Jersey chef and architect specializing in kitchen and restaurant design, who contracted a minor case of COVID-19 in March. “I’ve had colds that had worse symptoms,” he told me. Nevertheless, he said, the illness affected his ability to hold meetings, visit people’s homes and businesses, and find new clients. “Relationships are everything in this industry, and there’s a great deal of intimacy around design,” he said. “There were these multiple points of disruption that compounded one another.”

More severe cases have had more severe effects, for workers and the companies that employ them. Yvonne Evans has been a nurse for three decades, and runs a surgical clinic at the John D. Dingell Veterans Administration Medical Center in Detroit. She contracted a severe case of COVID-19 in the spring and is a long-hauler: She still has fatigue and shortness of breath half a year later. “I know what is happening to me; that’s the scary part,” she told me. “I know vasoconstriction when I see it.”

She now uses a mobility scooter to get around the hospital, and struggles to work as she used to. She said she was contemplating retiring early, although that would be a significant financial hit to her family. “Do I need to go on disability? I don’t know,” she said. “I’m trying to see how much damage it has done to my lungs, because the lungs do regenerate tissue.” Losing highly experienced professionals like Evans is straining the health system and the broader workforce. More than 200,000 health workers have contracted COVID-19 this year, and roughly 1,000 have died.

Other essential workers are bearing extraordinary risk, too. Francis Robateau was a veteran night manager for a Southern California grocery store, restocking shelves and managing inventory. Unable to both practice social distancing and keep the store filled with goods, he caught COVID-19. “I started having massive migraines,” he told me, adding that he still struggled with neurological symptoms and headaches weeks later. Concerned that his employer did not take safety protocols seriously enough, he ended up quitting. “I haven’t been making any income,” he told me. “My partner has been taking care of it—her mindset is ‘No, dude, you’re not feeling 100 percent; there’s no reason for you to take a full-time job.’”

For some, sickness has been catastrophic. Paz Aguilar, who worked at two fast-food restaurants in Oakland, California, ended up in a medically induced coma after contracting COVID-19, along with half a dozen of her co-workers. A stroke left her partially paralyzed. “I’d like to go back to work,” she told me, speaking in Spanish. But she cannot imagine doing so. That has put her and her extended family at severe economic risk, and increased the caretaking burden on her relatives.

America’s patchy paid-leave and health-care infrastructure, as well as its low labor standards, have exacerbated the problems created by the pandemic. Workers near the poverty line feel they have no choice but to keep working, afraid of losing their jobs if they stay at home to quarantine or to convalesce. Sick leave would “unquestionably” help stem the virus’s spread and support the economy, says Erika Moritsugu of the National Partnership for Women & Families, who is herself struggling with a month-long bout of COVID-19 that has left her with fatigue, aches and pains, nausea, and the inability to taste.

Research suggests that the thin, limited emergency sick-leave provisions passed by Congress this spring nevertheless prevented more than 400 infections a day. Paid leave is a “must-have, not a nice-to-have,” Moritsugu told me in an email. “It is a critical component of our economic and public health recovery. Workers who get sick must be able to stay home to recover. And in order to stay connected to the workforce, workers shouldn’t have to leave their jobs to care for a family member or recover from an illness. If we are going to get this virus under control, we need to allow people the option of taking time off.”

Sick leave and universal health-care coverage might also help close the disparities that COVID-19 is widening: between high-wage and low-wage workers, between men and women, between white workers and Black and Latino workers. “This pandemic laid bare that our system failed,” Dawn Huckelbridge, the director of the Paid Leave for All campaign, told me, noting that many lower-income workers were unaware that Congress passed emergency benefits at all. “Our individualistic, go-it-alone approach means women, low-income workers, and people of color were the ones who absorbed the shock to the system, but it impacts every one of us.”

That shock is certain to be long-lasting. America’s COVID-19 disaster has left thousands ailing, struggling, and managing the fallout of a global pandemic alone; businesses and households have been forced to shoulder a burden a competent government would manage. Dead workers, sick workers, disabled workers, workers forced out of the workforce: This is one of the virus’s worst legacies, and it proves that there is no saving the economy without saving the people who make it up.