COVID-19 and labour constraints: Recalling former health care workers not enough

April 02, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in mass layoffs in several industries, other essential industries will instead face critical workforce shortages, according to a new report. Social distancing, school and daycare closures, and measures to protect those people who are most at-risk limit the pool of workers firms can draw upon. How important will these constraints turn out to be, especially in essential industries?

To find out, researchers from McGill University, University of Rochester, and Stony Brook University provide a snapshot of the situation in the United States drawing on data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the American Community Survey, and the National Health and Interview Survey.

"To minimize the spread of the pandemic, state governments are increasingly restricting who can work outside the home to workers in essential industries. Roughly 60% of employment is in these industries," says Fabian Lange, a professor of economics at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Labour and Personnel Economics. "Reducing the strain on the health care workforce will be essential as they stand on the front lines of the battle against the pandemic."


According to the researchers, an important factor limiting the labour supply of people who can work outside the home is childcare. School and daycare closures have made it substantially more difficult for some employees to go to work. Because of social distancing, grandparents, friends, and neighbors are less able to pick up any of the slack.

Roughly a quarter of the U.S. workforce has young children at home and may therefore be constrained from full-time work. Rates are slightly higher in essential industries and highest in health care, where 5.6 million workers have at least one child under 12. Health care workers are also more likely to be single parents, and especially single mothers. It is therefore imperative to implement policies addressing childcare for health care workers to maintain labour supply in this crucial sector.

At-risk populations in the workforce

"Another limiting factor on labour supply could be attempts to limit outside contact for members of the household who are most at-risk. At-risk populations include those aged 65 and over, people with compromised immune systems, and people with underlying medical conditions," says Lange.

About one-fifth of the workforce is in an at-risk group or lives with someone who is more likely to suffer severe consequences from COVID-19. In health care, 25% of workers fall into this category. Overall, 18.5 million essential (non-health) workers and 4.6 million health care workers are in a high-risk group that limits their ability to participate in the labour force in order to protect themselves or a family member with underlying conditions.

Supply of health care workers

According to Lange, health care workers are subject to additional constraints. "They are under tremendous stress - not only because they face an increase in patients requiring intensive care, but also because of the likelihood that they themselves become infected."

The researchers note that one response has been to encourage former nurses and health care workers to return from retirement and other jobs. However, the reserve pool of potential health care workers is relatively small after accounting for the risks they face. The researchers estimate that if every one-time nurse not currently in nursing was recalled, this would increase the number of nurses by 27%. More broadly in health care, the potential pool could add up to 40% more workers. Nevertheless, two-thirds of these are either in a high-risk group or live in a household with a member from a high-risk group.

About the report

"Labour Supply in the time of COVID19" is authored by Lisa Kahn (University of Rochester), Fabian Lange (McGill University), and David Wiczer (State University of New York at Stony Brook).


About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada's top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

McGill University

Related Health Care Articles from Brightsurf:

Study evaluates new World Health Organization Labor Care Guide for maternity care providers
The World Health Organization developed the new Labor Care Guide to support clinicians in providing good quality, women-centered care during labor and childbirth.

Six ways primary care "medical homes" are lowering health care spending
New analysis of 394 U.S. primary care practices identifies the aspects of care delivery that are associated with lower health care spending and lower utilization of emergency care and hospital admissions.

Modifiable health risks linked to more than $730 billion in US health care costs
Modifiable health risks, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking, were linked to over $730 billion in health care spending in the US in 2016, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health.

Spending on primary care vs. other US health care expenditures
National health care survey data were used to assess the amount of money spent on primary care relative to other areas of health care spending in the US from 2002 to 2016.

MU Health Care neurologist publishes guidance related to COVID-19 and stroke care
A University of Missouri Health Care neurologist has published more than 40 new recommendations for evaluating and treating stroke patients based on international research examining the link between stroke and novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Large federal program aimed at providing better health care underfunds primary care
Despite a mandate to help patients make better-informed health care decisions, a ten-year research program established under the Affordable Care Act has funded a relatively small number of studies that examine primary care, the setting where the majority of patients in the US receive treatment.

International medical graduates care for Medicare patients with greater health care needs
A study by a Massachusetts General Hospital research team indicates that internal medicine physicians who are graduates of medical schools outside the US care for Medicare patients with more complex medical needs than those cared for by graduates of American medical schools.

The Lancet Global Health: Improved access to care not sufficient to improve health, as epidemic of poor quality care revealed
Of the 8.6 million deaths from conditions treatable by health care, poor-quality care is responsible for an estimated 5 million deaths per year -- more than deaths due to insufficient access to care (3.6 million) .

Under Affordable Care Act, Americans have had more preventive care for heart health
By reducing out-of-pocket costs for preventive treatment, the Affordable Care Act appears to have encouraged more people to have health screenings related to their cardiovascular health.

High-deductible health care plans curb both cost and usage, including preventive care
A team of researchers based at IUPUI has conducted the first systematic review of studies examining the relationship between high-deductible health care plans and the use of health care services.

Read More: Health Care News and Health Care Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to