COVID-19 fears are keeping people out of the workforce, in a stereotype-busting way

COVID-19 fears are keeping people out of the workforce, in a stereotype-busting way

There’s a stereotype out there—pushed by the predictable crop of white centrist pundit bros—that elite liberals are just too worried about COVID-19 and favor precautions that alienate the ordinary folk. Call it the latest iteration of the impulse that produced so many New York Times interviews with Trump-supporting Midwestern diner patrons.

The data does not support that. The Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes (SWAA), which has been in the field since May 2020, tracks the attitudes of people who had been in the labor market, earning at least $10,000 in 2019 or 2021, about things like remote work and COVID-19 precautions. It’s absolutely true that a small minority of people say they will never return to their pre-pandemic habits like going to crowded places or dining at indoor restaurants. But it’s still 12.5%, with another 45% saying they will continue modified forms of social distancing—14.5% planning a partial return and 31% planning a substantial return. And the details of who plans to continue social distances are very different from the official lazy pundit take.

RELATED STORY: This is the price of COVID-19 disinformation: The worst flu season in decades

When we look at the ongoing economic impact of covid, 9% of SWAA respondents who are not currently in the labor market—despite, remember, having previously been in the workforce and earned at least $10,000 in a recent year—say that “worries about catching COVID or other infectious disease” are the top reason they aren’t working, and another 13% say that’s the secondary reason.

So: A small but not negligible minority of people say they won’t go back to pre-pandemic life. A plurality say they will continue at least some precautions. And there’s reason to believe that covid worries are having an effect on labor force participation.

But the who of people with these concerns is where the stereotypes take serious damage. 

“The strong form of Long Social Distancing is especially prevalent among those who did not attend college, exceeding 17 percent for this group,” write study authors Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis. “Strong-form Long Social Distancing rises with age, roughly doubling from the early 20s to the early 60s. It is higher for women than men at all ages. It is about three percentage points higher for Democrats than for Republicans and higher yet for those who identify as Independents or with smaller political parties. Along several dimensions—education, earnings, industry, and occupation—strong-form Long Social Distancing is more common when remote work opportunities are fewer.”

Specifically, “the rate of strong-form Long Social Distancing is 14 percent in the Health Care & Social Assistance and Leisure & Hospitality sectors but only 9 percent in Finance, Insurance & Real Estate and in the Information sector. It is 16-18 percent in Transportation-related occupations and Other Personal Services but only 9 percent in Office and Administrative Support functions and in Construction & Extraction occupations.”

Overall, 17.6% of people with a high school diploma or less intended to keep doing a strong form of social distancing, a figure that drops as education levels increase, with just 7.6% of people with graduate degrees planning the same. The result is similar by income—lower-income people are more likely to plan to continue distancing than are high-income people.

And here the Yglesias-Silver-Barro wing of the punditry would have us believe that covid caution is a product of anxious highly educated liberals working from home and wanting to enforce their way of life on others. Instead, the people whose behavior is most likely to be affected by their ongoing concern about covid are … the people who work or have worked at jobs that require a lot of face-to-face interactions without opportunities for precautions. The people who would most struggle to pay medical bills. The people most likely to have preexisting conditions. The people most likely to be caregivers for vulnerable loved ones.

This shouldn’t come as any big surprise. Again and again in the debate about remote vs. in-person education we saw polls showing that Black parents and lower-income parents were the most likely to support continuing remote education, poll results that then showed up in which students went back to in-person school as soon as it became available. Yet white pundits waved off those families’ concerns, couching their insistence on the importance of in-person education as being for the benefit of students of color and low-income students. But it’s a reality that doesn’t fit the narrative of why or how or how quickly we should all just forget about everything we’ve seen and been through over the past nearly three years—the people we’ve lost and the people who are still sick and the fear of all those things—and how fully we should banish from our minds any thought of the 460 or so people still dying from COVID-19 every single day.

It sure is something to remember, though, both when we’re talking about the pandemic and when we’re talking about why it’s so goshdarned hard for businesses to find low-wage workers.


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