Remote Work Buoyed Employment for Those Vulnerable to Severe COVID-19
Approximately 18% of the labor force in 2020 had a preexisting condition that classified them as highly vulnerable to severe illness or death from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Using data from the 2020 National Health Interview Survey, I found that vulnerable workers did not experience a larger decline in labor force participation than workers not classified as vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness. This may be due, in part, to the fact that vulnerable workers were more likely than nonvulnerable workers to be employed in occupations allowing for remote or socially distanced work.
Vulnerable Workers Remained in the Labor Force in 2020
In 2020 the CDC advised individuals with certain preexisting conditions to take extra precautions to avoid contracting the coronavirus. These conditions included, among others:
- Severe disease of the kidneys, lungs, liver or heart
- Severe asthma
- History of stroke
- Body mass index (BMI) over 40
Individuals with such preexisting conditions may have reconsidered continuing to work in favor of isolating to avoid contracting the virus. However, despite the additional risk, the labor force participation of adult nonretirees vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness was statistically unchanged from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, according to my calculations from the National Health Interview Surveys. Over this same time frame, the share of employed individuals within this group fell from around 67.7% to around 64.8%. This decline is not statistically larger than the decline in the proportion of employed individuals in the nonvulnerable population, which fell from around 82.0% to 79.3%, again excluding retirees.
How were vulnerable workers able to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 at work? First, they were more likely to be employed in occupations allowing for remote work, at 41.4% versus 37.3% for nonvulnerable workers. Additionally, vulnerable workers were less likely to have to work in close proximity to others when in person, at 32.5% versus 26.8% for the nonvulnerable population.
Is Remote Work a Stabilizer for Disability Rolls?
Typically, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claims rise during recessions. However, claims fell by over 8.5% in both 2020 and 2021 relative to 2019; the COVID-19 recession lasted from February to April 2020. By the end of 2021, there were half a million fewer Americans on SSDI than there were at the end of 2019.
An open question is whether a shift toward more flexible work arrangements predicated by the pandemic will enable more individuals with health-related work limitations to remain in the labor force and contribute to the continued decline in SSDI rolls.