Long covid possible cause of surge in disabled women

A long covid patient is wheeled into a hospital by her mother in Sacramento, Calif., in October 2021.
(The New York Times/Jim Wilson)
A long covid patient is wheeled into a hospital by her mother in Sacramento, Calif., in October 2021. (The New York Times/Jim Wilson)

Long covid may be behind the recent surge in women with a disability, who surpassed their male counterparts in the workforce during the pandemic, reversing historic trends in the United States.

Women are disproportionately affected by lingering effects from a covid-19 infection, a health condition that is still little understood and manifests in persistent symptoms that can be debilitating.

The emergence of long covid coincides with an increase in women with disabilities, who have outnumbered their male peers in monthly government labor figures on a regular basis since last June.

"We have a pandemic that is resulting in a long-term infection associated with a chronic illness that we know disproportionately impacts women," said Katie Bach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who researches jobs and wages. "At the same time, the percentage of disabled people who are women is increasing -- the two are probably related."

The gender difference has important implications for the labor market. Researchers have estimated that covid illnesses may have reduced the workforce by 500,000 to 1 million people when accounting for those who either worked fewer hours or left entirely.

As a result, sectors that tend to employ more female workers are likely facing more shortages. For the women affected, setbacks in careers may further derail pre-covid progress in the gender wage gap.

Statistically, a smaller share of people with a disability have a job.

Roughly one in five of them was employed in 2022, compared with about two-thirds of people without disabilities, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. People with a disability are also twice as likely to work part-time and are more likely to be self-employed.

"Covid-19 illnesses persistently reduce labor supply," researchers Gopi Shah Goda from Stanford University and Evan Soltas at Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote in a paper last September. They found that workers who miss a full week because of covid are about 7 percentage points less likely to be employed a year later.

Linda Loxley, a former case manager at a senior center, said she would want nothing more than to return to her job of 20 years.

After contracting covid in May 2021, she became too weak to continue, collapsing at her desk and finding herself unable to drive home. She stopped working later that month and has been receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments, which she applied to with the help of a lawyer -- a route she's recommended to fellow long haulers.

"I would love to be able to work again," said Loxley, 56, of North Providence, R.I. "I am at that point where I'm just not reliable. I have days that I have trouble walking, and intense pain. And I still cannot function on a regular basis."

Labor data is probably underestimating the economic impact from long covid. Women who were out of the workforce and primary caregivers of kids or parents have reported that their partner had to step back from work or that the couple had to spend money on outside care when they became chronically ill, Bach said.

Long covid was officially recognized as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act in July 2021, for conditions that include difficulty breathing and damage to organs like the heart, lungs and kidney, among others. Research has found that it can cause a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms that impact everyday life.

A recent survey conducted by the Census Bureau found that among the 11.2 million people who reported long-term covid symptoms that reduced their ability to carry out day-to-day activities, 65% were women.

A significantly higher proportion of women reported having to cut their working hours or quit entirely due to long covid in a separate poll by CivicScience.

Differences in how immune systems respond to infections has been cited as a possible explanation why women experience long covid more often than men.

Before the pandemic, the number of men with a disability who were working or looking for work in the government data exceeded that of women -- because industries with dangerous and more physical jobs tend to employ more men. The fact that the trend has reversed is especially concerning given that there are 10 million more men than women in the labor force.

Loxley said she was planning to retire at 67 before falling ill. She has gone to two neurologists and enrolled in two long covid clinics, she said. But nothing seems to work.

"I've worked since I was 15 years old. I loved my job," Loxley said. "It hit me all at once. It was like a sucker punch -- physically, emotionally, financially."