The mysterious condition known as long Covid may be in large part to blame for the labor shortage that has slowed Hawaii’s progress in recovering economically from the pandemic, state lawmakers were told Wednesday.

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said UHERO will release a report this week that suggests tens of thousands of Hawaii residents may suffer from moderate to severe long Covid. The lingering illness may be causing some to work less or give up their second jobs, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “long Covid” or “post Covid” is characterized by a wide range of ongoing health problems that “can last weeks, months, or years.”

Hawaii State Capitol.
Members of the House Finance Committee were presented with state data showing that Hawaii’s labor force and employment still have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

It is more often found in people who suffered from severe cases of Covid-19, and comes with a variety of symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty thinking or concentrating, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Long Covid may qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Bonham told members of the House Finance Committee Wednesday that Hawaii has about 37,000 fewer jobs filled statewide than it had before the pandemic began, including many part-time or second jobs. He said there are multiple explanations for that, but “some of this is people who just decided they don’t need that second job back. The other is, they’ve got long Covid.”

“The percentage of households in Hawaii that are reporting moderate to severe symptoms of long Covid, and what we know about the national reduction in work effort when you have long Covid, tells us that we can explain most of the shortfall in jobs by people experiencing long Covid,” Bonham said.

In response to follow-up questions from the committee, Bonham explained UHERO has been surveying nearly 2,500 households across the state for the past six months to a year, and the data reported by those families on Covid-19 infections has been consistent with CDC data.

A fraction of the survey respondents who tested positive also reported experiencing long Covid symptoms, and extrapolating from those responses suggests as many as 30,000 to 40,000 people statewide may be suffering from moderate to severe long Covid, he said.

“Many people with long Covid are working,” he said. “Many of them are working, but they may not have the second job back because it’s just too much.”

Health Department spokesman Brooks Baehr said the state does not have any data on how common long Covid is in Hawaii, or how many cases have been identified.

On Wednesday, Hawaii reported a weekly average of 177 Covid cases per day for a total of 373,514 since the pandemic began in March 2020, although officials have said the number is likely higher due to home testing. Four new deaths were reported last week, raising the toll to 1,765.

There are other factors in play in the labor shortage as well. The total state population has declined gradually for years, and Bonham said the state population has dropped by more than 10,000 people since the end of 2019 as the pandemic reduced the number of available hospitality jobs.

UHERO is predicting that declining population trend will continue for the next two years, he said, which means fewer available workers.

State Chief Economist Eugene Tian, left, and University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization Executive Director Carl Bonham at the State Capitol. Bonham said new research suggests long Covid may be a factor in Hawaii’s labor shortage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Chief Economist Eugene Tian also cited a “mismatch” between employers and workers. For example, there are sometimes no applicants for openings in areas such as medical services, and large numbers of nurses and physicians who are registered in Hawaii are actually working out of state.

Meanwhile, “a lot of people laid off in the tourism industry, they don’t want to go back to the same industry. They are looking for different jobs and they are looking for higher pay, flexible working arrangements, or flexible hours,” he said.

Bonham said the matching issue is one reason “why you hear so many businesses talking about not being able to fill those jobs.”

UHERO predicted that while the mainland will slide into an economic recession this year, Hawaii probably will not. The state economy is likely to be buoyed by a surge in public sector construction spending and a belated recovery in international travel, according to researchers.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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