Omicron and the week America calls sick

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Hundreds of first responders in Los Angeles are sick or quarantined due to Covid-19. A hotel recruiting company sends housekeepers to Florida and Texas to replace absent staff. A Denver medical lab doesn’t have enough staff to send people to nursing homes to take blood samples.

The first full week of 2022 was supposed to mark a return to work after the winter break. Instead, America called the sick. Employers have been hit by a global wave of Covid-19-related illnesses and people taking time off work because they or their family or coworkers have been exposed to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. School closures and childcare issues are also keeping some workers at home.

“We’ve gotten to the point this week where there are a number of shifts that no one can fill,” said Lena DeGloma, owner of Red Moon Wellness spa in New York’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Six of the 25 employees were absent Thursday, and two had just returned. Ms DeGloma returned to work on Thursday after being quarantined for 10 days because she tested positive for Covid-19.

The recent increase in employee absences is the latest squeeze on the public and private sectors already exhausted by the pandemic, supply chain grunts, labor shortages and rising prices. Many employees report mild symptoms as a result of Covid-19, employers say, but still have to miss several days of work, leaving employers grappling with the question of who will be and who can’t do it on a daily basis.

The inability to get Covid-19 tests is also a challenge for some people to determine if they can work outside the home, travel, and socialize with others.

The new disruption in the global labor market at the start of the third pandemic year is both familiar and foreign. In the United States, the seven-day average of reported daily cases exceeded 500,000 for the first time since the declaration of the 2020 pandemic. Omicron infections result in fewer hospitalizations than previous variants, but the number of people tested positive or exposed is wreaking havoc in workplaces, which are already strained by the tight US labor market.

Lena DeGloma, owner of Red Moon Wellness, said she took on the role of contact tracer at the Brooklyn spa.


Photo:

The Brenizers / Well-being of the Red Moon

More than five million Americans could remain in isolation at home over the next few days, according to Andrew Hunter, senior US economist at Capital Economics. While the economic effects of the latest wave of Covid-19 may be temporary, he wrote in a report on Wednesday, it could “deal a major blow to the economy in the next month or two.”

U.S. health officials have shortened quarantine times for people who test positive and show no symptoms. Staff shortages disrupted some essential services again this week, from airline flights to in-person learning. The New York City transit system operated some bus and subway lines at reduced frequency. A hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida has temporarily stopped taking new labor and delivery patients.

Los Angeles officials said Thursday they had sufficient staff for emergency services despite more than 400 police officers and around 300 firefighters and emergency medical personnel being sick or in quarantine.

“What’s so difficult with this disease is that you don’t know if you have it until you get tested, and it takes time,” said Terry Bell, co-owner of the ILO Lounge in Washington, DC.

To help fight Omicron, the Biden administration is opening more Covid test sites and providing 500 million Covid tests to Americans. Daniela Hernandez of the WSJ explains why testing is still a pain point in the United States, two years after the start of the pandemic. Photographic illustration: David Fang

Revenue fell about 50% at Mr Bell’s business during the pandemic, but no one got sick until mid-December, when the salon had to close for two weeks and cancel around 400 appointments. . Fifteen of the 18 staff members were diagnosed with Covid-19 following the annual holiday party. All 18 had been vaccinated, and only one had not received a booster, said Mr Bell, who tested negative.

The show, in operation for 41 years, reopened a few days before the end of the year holidays. Then, on Tuesday, a hairdresser, who had been ill in December, called to report a sore throat, forcing the salon to cancel another 40 appointments.

The barber ended up testing negative, he said, and returned to work on Thursday.

Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place in Washington, DC, where managers washed dishes this week to make up for understaffing.


Photo:

Alyssa Schukar for the Wall Street Journal

Greg Casten, a partner at four family-owned Washington restaurants, now starts his mornings with an update on the health of his management team. “Every day there is at least one surprise,” said Casten, who estimates that since mid-December around 35% of his employees have called because of Covid-19 or exposure to Covid -19.

At one of Mr. Casten’s restaurants, Nick’s Riverside Grill, two of the six employees are absent. At Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place, managers waited tables and cleaned dishes this week because so many other staff were sick or in quarantine.

Mr Casten said he was relieved to close his restaurants on Monday in response to a winter snowstorm, a step he would not normally take. “I am tense and tired,” he said. “We were very happy not to open because of the weather.

At Rocky Mountain Labs, an independent clinical lab in Denver that began offering Covid-19 testing at the start of the pandemic, Omicron has caused an increase in demand for testing at the same time as it has taken staff out of service. Three of the lab’s nine workers were sick with the virus this week, co-owner Amy Hicks said, and another just gave a review, citing burnout.

To meet all requests for Covid-19 testing, Ms Hicks and her husband, doctor and co-owner, have had to remove staff from their second location, a lab that does traditional pathology work. And they’ve had to cut back on some services, like sending phlebotomists to nursing homes to draw blood and bring back the samples for testing. “We’re so understaffed that we have to tell customers we can’t go out,” she said.

Terry Bell was only able to reopen his ILO Lounge in Washington, DC, shortly before the New Years Eve, after a two-week shutdown.


Photo:

Alyssa Schukar for the Wall Street Journal

Dan Kesic, president of Chicago-based Hospitality Services Group, contracts with customers, including hotels and resorts, to supply housekeepers, waiters and cooks. Mr Kesic said at least 30% of the company’s more than 1,000 hourly workers are battling Covid-19 this week, either from infection or exposure.

“This week it’s like there is no solution,” he said. “When you fix something, something else breaks. There are those expectations of people that you cannot meet.

To fill that gap, Mr Kesic said his company is contracting out work in markets where customers are, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, and paying bonuses to people who can even work up to to two weeks for some jobs.

He said the company in recent weeks has also paid to transport staff across the country, such as traveling nurses, to fill hotel housekeeping or other roles. But Covid-19 is also shaking up those plans, with the recent wave of flight cancellations.

The Omicron variant has hit many companies that until recently were able to keep Covid-19 at bay through masking, vaccinations and other safeguards.

Red Moon Wellness, the Brooklyn spa, requires employees exposed to the virus to stay outside for at least 10 days, show no symptoms and take two negative tests before returning.

Ms DeGloma spends hours every day reorganizing staff shifts, tracking people who may have been exposed to the virus and helping workers request paid family leave. “I feel like I have to take on the role of contract tracer, just to make sure everyone stays safe,” Ms. DeGloma said.

A massage therapist at Red Moon Wellness, a Brooklyn spa that was unable to fill some shifts due to understaffing.


Photo:

The Brenizers / Well-being of the Red Moon

Jordan Krawll, owner of six hair salons in Miami, was set to close a store this week after two staff fell ill and a third said her daughter would not let her work due to health concerns . The remaining three employees volunteered to each work 10 hours of overtime per week, allowing the location to remain open with reduced hours.

The employees “have a lot of pride. They didn’t want to see the store close, ”Krawll said. “We have had more cases in the past two weeks than in the past two years,” he added.

For some businesses, a temporary shutdown has been the only option. At Cooper’s Corner Montessori International in New Rochelle, NY, the calls began on December 28, when an employee texted manager Tina De Silva to let her know she had tested positive for Covid-19 and not would not be back on Monday, when the four locations in the center were to reopen after the holidays.

Ms De Silva then texted a worker who usually covers absences and learned that she had also tested positive. Over the next four days, more calls came in and over the weekend Ms De Silva concluded that she had to temporarily shut down two sites.

The closures have been particularly painful, she said, as Cooper’s Corner has managed to stay fully open throughout the pandemic, except for the early days of the outbreak when health officials ordered the closure of schools and daycares.

Pens are sanitized for customer use at the ILO Show in Washington, DC


Photo:

Alyssa Schukar for the Wall Street Journal

Write to Ruth Simon at [email protected]

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