With the latest coronavirus wave upending another holiday season, frontline employees are feeling a disturbing sense of deja vu. The soaring number of U.S. infections linked to the Omicron variant has only deepened the crisis among essential workers, many of whom report being demoralized, abused, underpaid and exhausted as the pandemic trudges into its second year.
As 2021 comes to a close, workers in health care, transportation, retail, food services and other key sectors are again falling prey to COVID-19, leaving already diminished workforces to pick up the slack. The shortages are leading to hundreds of canceled flights, closed eateries and short-staffed retail stores. Above all, workers speak of a renewed sense of fatigue and frustration.
“We don’t have enough hands. Everybody is working as much as they physically and mentally can,” Judy Snarsky, a grocery worker in Massachusetts, told the Associated Press. “Some of us have been going like a freight train.”
The supermarket where she works on Cape Cod is down to about 100 workers from its normal level of 150, and Snarsky has been working 50 hours a week while picking up extra tasks due to understaffing, the 59-year-old said.
“I get really bad anxiety”
At CityMD, rising COVID-19 cases among staff has pushed the New York-area chain of private urgent-care clinics to close 1 in 10 locations this week. New York City’s public hospital system has made nearly all clinic visits this week virtual in order to free up nurses for hospitals and testing sites, Gothamist reported.
“I am concerned about a loss of staff due to Omicron,” said Mitchell Katz, the hospital system’s CEO.
Michelle Gonzalez, a nurse at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, said that she and her intensive care unit colleagues never truly had a break from COVID-19, while the arrival of Omicron has only intensified the stress.
“Prior to work, I get really bad anxiety,” she said. “If I’ve been off for two days, I will come back in a panic because I don’t know what I’m walking into.”
At least seven states in the Midwest and Northeast have called in hundreds of National Guard members to help fill labor gaps in hospitals and nursing homes, where they serve meals, transport patients and perform other nonclinical work.
Unions representing health care workers gripe that far too many hospitals failed to fill staff vacancies or to retain pandemic-weary staff. For example, there are 1,500 nursing vacancies in New York’s three largest hospitals alone — about double the number at the onset of the pandemic, said Carl Ginsberg, a spokesman for the 42,000-member New York State Nurses Association.
“There are not enough nurses to do the job right, and so there are situations where the units have dangerous conditions, where patients are in jeopardy,” Ginsberg told the AP.
To deal with the shortage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended allowing health care workers who test positive for COVID-19 to return to work sooner as long as they don’t have symptoms. (Countries including Spain and the U.K. have made similar moves.)
In West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice outlined a plan to recruit and train more than 2,000 new nurses over the next four years, using $48 million of federal funds to help.
Meanwhile, long-term care facilities are bracing for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases driven by Omicron. Worsening matters is that their workforce is 15% smaller than before the pandemic, according to Rachel Reeves, a spokesperson for the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living.
“Caregivers are burned out,” she said. “Not only have many experienced tremendous loss — it has been exhausting, physically and emotionally, battling this virus day in and day out.”
Canceled flights, fewer cops
COVID-19 is again wreaking havoc among public-facing workers in transportation and safety. United, Delta and other U.S. airlines have canceled more than 600 flights on Christmas Eve because so many workers were out sick.
“The nationwide spike in Omicron cases this week has had a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation,” a United Airlines spokesperson said in a statement.
The airline industry has urged the government to relax quarantine protocols, citing the impact that the ongoing wave of illness might have on its workforce.
“As with health care, police, fire and public transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate personnel shortages and create significant disruptions to our workforce and operations,” Airlines for America, the industry group, wrote to the CDC on Wednesday.
In New York, about 2,700 police officers were absent earlier this week — twice the number who are ill on an average day. In Seattle, the police force is down about 300 officers from its usual force of 1,350, according to Officer Mike Solan, who leads the city’s police union.
“It’s difficult for our community because they’re waiting for that call for help,” Solan said. “And then we’re at risk because we don’t have the proper safe numbers to have a safe working environment when we answer that call for help.”
Retail on the line
Many smaller businesses such as nail salons, restaurants, stores and event spaces are bracing for a hit if the situation deteriorates. There’s already been a drop in hours worked in the leisure and hospitality industries, according to an analysis from Homebase, a software provider to small and midsize businesses.
The 10 U.S. counties that rely most on tourism — a group that includes Anaheim, California; Orlando, Florida; New York; and Washington, D.C. — saw 25% fewer hours worked last week, Jason Greenberg, Homebase’s head economist, told CBS MoneyWatch.
In New York, more than 30 restaurants abruptly closed last week when staff and patrons tested positive for the virus, and closures have also hit the Bay Area, Chicago and Houston.
Trophy Brewing in Raleigh, North Carolina, cut its operating hours and decided to close three of the business’ four locations early on New Year’s Eve, said David Lockwood, the company’s co-owner. In Washington, D.C., DogMa Daycare & Boarding For Dogs said this week that it was canceling all day care until January 3 because several staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
Overworked and underpaid
The decision to close a business — or for an employee to call in sick from work — is a tough one in a season that historically has been a big moneymaker for eateries and retail stores.
While some service workers have seen pay increases amid the yearlong labor shortage, and some states and cities have offered bonuses to frontline workers, nearly all of those pay gains have been eaten up by rising inflation.
Most cooks, bartenders and grocery workers who fall sick or have to quarantine will lose money since about two-thirds of them don’t have access to paid sick leave.
“Realistically, retail workers don’t have many options,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International union, told “Good Morning America.” “One day off is 20% of their income, and a lot of them — based on the wages that they’re making — they can’t afford to do that.”
Daniel Schneider, a Harvard University professor focused on low-income workers, said the public should keep in mind that essential workers simply don’t have the luxury of working from home, as some Americans do.
“White-collar workers need to appreciate the real risks that these folks take,” he told the AP. “You can’t ring up groceries from home. You can’t stock shelves from home.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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