More workers called in sick in 2020 than at any time in at least two decades, a USA TODAY analysis of federal labor market data has found.
An average of 1.5 million people a month missed work because of their "own illness/injury/medical problems," survey data show – 45% more than normal over the past 20 years.
Child care-related absences increased even more, soaring to 250% of the 20-year average. Roughly 67,000 people a month said child care problems made them miss work.
"Certainly, quarantines and illnesses due to the virus caused increase absences, as did the challenges for working parents who found themselves playing the part of teacher, child care worker, and employee,'' says Colleen Madden, a spokeswoman for Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement company which helps with job searches, executive coaching and corporate restructuring. "All of these stressors likely caused employee burnout in many workers as well, which also leads to absenteeism."
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While the rise in sick days during the pandemic was perhaps not surprising by itself, the data from the monthly Current Population Survey are the first to concretely quantify the sweeping magnitude of COVID-19's impact on the American workplace.
The data also show a huge increase in workers who missed work for other, unspecified reasons. From 2000 through 2019, the highest number of workers in this category in one month was 1.27 million. Last year, the monthly average was 2.5 million.
The survey is conducted by the Census Bureau on behalf of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Whether workers feared contracting COVID-19 or were actually exposed, upticks in workers staying home sick mirrored spikes of the novel coronavirus that has led to more than 400,000 deaths in the United States.
"What we find is that the absenteeism does tend to track what's going on with COVID-19 incidence," says Matthew Groenewold, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The USA TODAY analysis used federal labor market survey data compiled by IPUMS-USA at the University of Minnesota. The Census Bureau asks thousands of people each month about their employment status and work lives, including whether they missed work and why.
While April did not have the highest number of coronavirus infections, more workers called in sick that month than in any other last year. That's likely due to Americans quarantining or worrying about contracting COVID-19 after the economy nearly ground to a halt in mid-March when governors imposed restrictions on businesses to slow the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 had a different impact on work than the cold or flu, which usually causes a higher number of absences in the winter followed by a summer dip.
During the pandemic last year, however, absences rose and remained high in July and August before dropping in September. They then jumped to new heights in November and December.
"To see a spike in absenteeism in the summer is sort of the opposite of what we'd expect to see,'' Groenewold says. "We've known for a long time that workplace absenteeism is highly correlated with the occurrence of influenza type illness."
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Less surprising perhaps was the type of employee who called in sick most often in the spring when the pandemic began. That worker tended to fall into the category of essential employee, someone who could not work remotely and was at greater risk of exposure to the virus.
"When the community mitigation measures that were put in place were most restrictive, and economic activity largely ground to a halt, the only people who were working in their normal workplaces were essential workers,'' Groenewold says, citing the CDC's analysis of data released in the spring. "That's where we saw the excess in absenteeism.''
When restrictions eased during the summer, increased absences occurred "across demographic and professional subgroups,'' he says.
The high level of illness-related absences was offset somewhat by historically low levels of personal days or vacations. About 1.9 million workers a month took time off for leisure last year, down from the usual 2.5 million a month.
But Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in an email to USA TODAY that the high level of absences last year took a toll.
"The intense mental and emotional strain on workers, both those who worked from home and those who had to go into an office, was sometimes paralyzing and almost certainly impacted productivity through absences,'' Challenger wrote.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: Workplace absences surge in 2020 due to illness, fears