The claim: The COVID-19 death toll is a cause of the labor shortage

The apparent contradiction between high unemployment and a high number of companies struggling to find unskilled workers has opened a debate about whether a “true” labor shortage exists, and if so, why.

Some say extended unemployment benefits keep workers at home. Others have suggested that restrictive immigration policies, caretaking responsibilities and continuing health risks play a role.

On Twitter and Instagram, a different potential cause gained traction: that the coronavirus wiped out large numbers of American workers. Tens of thousands of users liked and shared the post.

“It hit me like a truck yesterday that these “staff shortages” aren’t only about wages … but about us losing 600k extra people in the past 15 months,” @auntiebernice tweeted on June 22. “They aren’t here to work.”

USA TODAY reached out to users who shared the post for comment.

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Both COVID-19 and economic shutdowns have disproportionately affected workers whose work requires physical interaction with customers and clients, as well as lower-income workers. But the numbers show COVID-19 deaths neither caused nor significantly contributed to the shortage.

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The labor shortage, explained

The first point to note is that a labor shortage isn’t as simple as comparing available workers and available jobs, experts say. The claim alludes to this by referencing the role of wages.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.5 million fewer people are in the workforce now than in Feb. 2020. Marketplace reported there are currently 1.4 workers per open position, while the rate is typically 2.8 per job opening.

However, a “shortage” doesn’t just imply a simple lack of workers or a lack of workers with the right skills. According to Erica Groshen, a Cornell University labor economist who served as commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2014-2017, it means that available workers are not willing to accept the pay and benefits of available jobs.

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“I’m not a big believer in overall labor shortages,” she said. “When the price of a car goes up, we don’t declare a car shortage…you always have to say (the shortage is) ‘at the wages that the employers are offering.’”

As reopenings have increased demand for workers, employers are finding that those workers aren’t willing to work for the wages or conditions they are offering. This could mean, for example, a mom who can’t work a job unless she can secure affordable child care.

As a result, employers have to attract workers by raising wages. As wages rise, the theory goes, more people will enter the workforce and address the shortage.

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But this shortage could also relate to a lack of foreign workers, a lack of workers with the right skills or, Groshen said, a period of career reassessment. NPR dubbed the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of Americans voluntarily leaving their jobs this year “The Great Resignation.”

Victims of COVID-19 made up a small fraction of the workforce

There is currently no data counting the number of American workers who died of COVID-19. However, even the most conservative estimates rule out the possibility that deaths caused or significantly contributed to the current shortage.

One reason is that we know the virus was far more lethal for older Americans than for working-age Americans. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a total of 596,740 people had died of COVID-19 as of July 12. Of this number, 75% were 65 years of age or older. And 57% were over 75 years of age.

Seventy-five is far above the minimum retirement age of 62 years and the full retirement age of 66 years and two months, at which retirees can claim full Social Security benefits.

For a very conservative estimate, we could assume all of the COVID-19 victims under 75 years of age were active members of the workforce.

In that case, COVID-19 deaths would account for only 7.3% of the 3.5 million people who are no longer in the workforce.

That number drops to 4.3% if we take a more reasonable but still conservative approach, assuming that 20% of the people between 65 and 74 were still working, in line with a 2019 AARP survey.

And the actual number may be lower. Because severe illnesses and disabilities increase a person’s risk of dying from COVID-19, some of those Americans also may have been unemployed, Groshen said.

“People with underlying conditions are going to be less likely to be participating in the labor force than people without underlying conditions,” Groshen said. “Not all underlying conditions disqualify you from working, but some of them surely do.”

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate the claim that the COVID-19 death toll is a cause of the labor shortage MISSING CONTEXT, because without additional information it is misleading. Some Americans in the workforce died of COVID-19, but it is not an overall cause or major contributor to the labor shortage. Even conservative estimates show COVID-19 deaths likely account for less than 5% of the current labor shortage.

Our fact-check sources:

Erica Groshen, July 8, Phone interview with USA TODAY

, Apr. 22, 2019, More Americans Working Past 65

Bureau of Labor Statistics, released July 2, The Employment Situation — June 2021

Bureau of Labor Statistics, archived July 10, Table A-1, Employment status of the civilian population by sex and age

Bureau of Labor Statistics, archived Apr. 3, 2020, Table A-1, Employment status of the civilian population by sex and age

CNBC, June 7, Is there a labor shortage? What the May jobs report tells us

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed July 12, COVID-19 Mortality Overview

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed July 12, Certain Medical Conditions and Risk for Severe COVID-19

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed July 12, Weekly Updates by Select Demographic and Geographic Characteristics

Marketplace, June 1, Is the labor shortage a crisis or an adjustment?

National Academy of Social Insurance, accessed July 13, What is the Social Security retirement age?

The New York Times, May 20, The Myth of Labor Shortages

The New York Times, March 15, 2020, The Workers Who Face the Greatest Coronavirus Risk

NPR, June 24, As The Pandemic Recedes, Millions Of Workers Are Saying ‘I Quit’

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: COVID-19 deaths didn’t cause the labor shortage



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