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Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
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Sick and Tired: Omicron Overwhelms California Workers

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

As the highly contagious COVID-19 omicron variant blankets California, more workers are getting sick, and in some cases, dying. The state is facing an unprecedented number of cases, with daily averages more than 7 times that of the peak of the delta variant wave. These numbers may underestimate the true extent of infections, as Californians struggle to get their hands on tests, and positive results from over-the-counter tests often go unreported.

During the first two weeks of January, nearly a million Californians reported staying home from work to recover from COVID or care for someone with the virus, according to a “Household Pulse” US Census survey. That’s a stunning 420% increase from a month prior.

The consequences: Businesses, many of which were already struggling to fill open jobs, have even more slots to fill as workers call in sick. Schools are grappling with teacher absences, and in some cases calling on parent volunteers to supervise classrooms and clean up. In California’s prisons, the number of active infections among workers increased by more than 200% in the first 10 days of January. Hospitals, which expect COVID-positive patients to triple by the end of the month, have warned that they are on the brink of collapse. Given that health care workers are already burned out and retiring early, the fact that remaining workers are contracting COVID has left hospitals severely short-staffed — with “elective” surgeries sometimes cancelled or postponed.

It will take months, potentially years, to fully understand the impact of the current surge on California’s workers and the state’s economy. But the picture will likely differ from than the economic shock of the pandemic’s early months. This time around, top officials say they foresee no shutdowns. Layoffs early in the pandemic drove unemployment up to 16% in April of 2020, but amid omicron, California has yet to see a big uptick in jobless claims, said Michael Bernick, former director of California’s Employment Development Department.

But in December, the most recent month for which data is available, California recorded 445 workplace outbreaks — a number the state Public Health Department cautions is likely an undercount. The health care and social assistance sector had the most outbreaks, with 154, closely followed by education, which had 144 outbreaks. The accommodations and food service sector was next with 32, and both manufacturing and the arts and entertainment sectors also saw outbreaks increase in December.

CalMatters is exploring how omicron is triggering or exacerbating labor shortages throughout the state, and placing Californians’ job security and health in peril.

—Grace Gedye, Kristen Hwang and Ben Christopher