Hundreds of workers at a Smithfield Foods Inc. meatpacking plant in Crete, Neb., contracted Covid-19 at the height of the pandemic last spring. For about 50 of the facility’s 2,300 employees, a fear of getting sick because of preexisting conditions has kept them from working ever since.
“We work so close together,” says a Smithfield worker in pork production who’s been on leave from the plant throughout the pandemic and asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “It’s like pulling teeth to find out if the person next to you tested positive.”
While the surge in the number of unemployed Americans has been a focus of economists throughout the pandemic, another problem in the labor market has been mostly overlooked: The people that do have jobs are calling out sick in record numbers or taking leaves of absence. Unlike the jobless rate, which has declined markedly from the peak in April, the rate of absenteeism has remained stubbornly high. More than 1.9 million people missed work in December because of illness, according to Labor Department data, almost matching the 2 million record set in April and underscoring the impact of a third wave of coronavirus infections.
These lost days of work are sapping an economic recovery that’s been progressing in fits and starts for the past several months. Some indicators have improved significantly, but others such as retail sales and personal income have weakened as the pandemic rages and local governments impose fresh restrictions on businesses and travel.
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