Posted by: Josh Lehner | January 12, 2022

Omicron, Workplace Disruptions, and Distance Learning

The omicron wave is here and new COVID-19 cases are going hockey stick. Our office has fielded a few questions this week about how this feels like 2020 all over again. While there may be some similarities in terms of skyrocketing cases, there are a some key differences in terms of the state of the economy, expected duration of the wave, etc. Let’s run through a few different ways our office is thinking about the current state of the pandemic and economy.

First, cases are at record highs here in Oregon. While breakthrough cases are more common with omicron than previous waves, we know vaccinations still provide clear benefits in terms of both contracting the virus and the severity of illness if you do.

In terms of the economy, what matters most are shutdowns, given those sideline large swaths of consumer spending and employment overnight. Absent shutdowns, and we have not had any in a year, the biggest impacts of the pandemic are in terms of workplace disruptions. Workers who are out sick and/or quarantining do represent lost production and productivity.

During the pandemic, we have seen an increase in the number of workers who are employed but not at their jobs due to illness. Nationally there are an additional 600,000 workers out sick above and beyond what we typically saw pre-pandemic. That increase is equal to about 0.4% of the total workforce. Translating these national figures to Oregon, that’d be about 8,000 additional workers not at work today due to being sick.

More workers being sick is impacting all sectors of the economy, including education. We are starting to see some classes, and even whole schools move to distance learning as a temporary measure to help curb the cases. The key here is school staffing and the ability to fill all the substitute positions when teachers are out sick. Online schooling, of course, has knock on impacts for households, and working parents in particular.

This impact was one of the first things our office dug into at the start of the pandemic. I have updated that work to get a look at the current state of the workforce across the country (US data due to small sample sizes for Oregon). Nationally, about 1 out of every 8 working Americans fits the following description. They have kids, work in an occupation that cannot be done remotely, and do not have another non-working adult present in the household. In other words these 20 million Americans are in a bind. They must arrange other childcare/schooling options, or take time off of work to be home if their kid’s classes or schools go remote.

Another piece to online learning our office looked at back in 2020 were the income, geographic, and racial and ethnic disparities when it comes to access to technology. Unfortunately the 2020 ACS microdata does not allow us to combine individual level details like race and ethnicity with household variables about broadband access and the like. That said, following table clearly shows the income and geographic disparities when it comes to broadband access in Oregon.

Bottom Line: The omicron wave is here. A silver lining is that the illness severity may not be as bad as delta, and that while the peak number of cases is higher, the duration is shorter and the wave crests faster. The overall impact of omicron on the economy is expected to be less than in past waves because there are no shutdowns and consumers continue to spend. That said, expect to continue to see workplace disruptions as workers are out sick. This will include some schools moving back to online learning temporarily.


  1. […] Source: Omicron, Workplace Disruptions, and Distance Learning | Oregon Office of Economic Analysis […]

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