Feb 3, 2022 - Podcasts

Omicron’s negative impact on American jobs

In January, nearly 9 million people missed work because they were sick with COVID or taking care of someone. That's why many, including President Biden, are bracing for disappointing January job numbers, which are released Friday morning.

  • Plus, are we past the latest covid surge?
  • And, roads that charge your electric car while you’re driving on it.

Guests: Axios' Neil Irwin, Sam Baker and Joann Muller.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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ERICA PANDEY: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, February 3rd. I’m Erica Pandey, filling in for Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: are we past the latest covid surge? Plus, charging your electric car while you’re driving it.

But first, omicron’s impact on American jobs is today’s One Big Thing.

In January, nearly 9 million people missed work because they were sick with COVID or taking care of someone. That's why many, including President Biden, are bracing themselves for disappointing January job numbers. Those are out tomorrow morning and Axios’ chief economic correspondent Neil Irwin is here to tell us what to expect. Neil, what are these numbers going to look like?

NEIL IRWIN: The consensus forecast is that we are going to see a pretty weak job growth number for January. How weak? We don't know. It could actually be a loss. All those people who were home sick because of COVID, if they didn't get paid sick leave, if they're not salaried, if they're hourly workers who were staying home, not on the payroll. They are going to show up as those jobs having disappeared. And that could actually lead to a negative number in payroll jobs, the first of the Biden administration.

ERICA: How much of this is because of the Omicron surge?

NEIL: So if that's what happens, if we do get a very weak payroll number, even a negative payroll number, that looks like it's probably mainly an Omicron effect. People will hash over the numbers and try and try and tease it apart and figure out how much of that is about people being home sick. But really all the evidence is pointing to that being the predominant factor holding back job growth in January. You know, it's fascinating. The, uh, the survey that these numbers are based on, it's actually for the second week of the month. The week that includes January 12th. If you look at the data, that was the week that Omicron cases hit their all-time peak before they started receding and coming down. So the time the Labor Department is using to estimate job growth is the very week that the most people were home sick from Omicron.

ERICA: If that's true, if it is predominantly the Omicron surge, are weak numbers going to be something to worry about?

NEIL: Probably not. Look, this is a strong labor market. We saw it in December, 3.9% unemployment, that's very low. And you know, keep in mind the other survey that comes out with this on the unemployment rate, that shouldn't be affected much by Omicron. So we'll have another reading to tell whether something deeper is wrong in the labor market. But the clear situation right now is that people who want a job can get one. If they're able to get to work and able to be healthy and not have to be at home caring for a loved one. And a lot of people are not in that situation. It's been a rough month with a lot of people getting sick.

ERICA: These numbers get revised in the future. Could that change things?

NEIL: It could. We've seen that over and over these last few months. That the initial report on payroll job creation turns out to be too low, and it ends up being revised up as the months pass. This is a really hard moment for the Labor Department, for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to try to calculate these things, you know, think about it this way. You know, this is based on a survey, they survey companies, all kinds of employers, asking how many people are on your payrolls. Well, if the HR person is home sick that week, maybe the survey doesn't get filled in, maybe their numbers are incomplete. When that gets filled in later, what we're seeing over and over is the job growth numbers are a good bit better than they first report when the numbers come out on the first Friday of the month.

ERICA: Looking ahead to the coming months, should we just get used to economic performance that relies on COVID case counts?

NEIL: Look, there's something that Jay Powell, the chairman of The Federal Reserve has been saying for months, which is: of course the economy depends on the course of the virus. And I think that's become very clear, over and over, with the Delta wave, with the wave of vaccinations, cutting in the other direction last spring. When public health conditions are better, the economy gets better. And when they're worse, it gets worse. And so, that's the central reality for the Biden administration, for the Federal Reserve, for any of us who just want to have a happy economy, rising incomes and all the good things that come from that.

ERICA: Axios’ chief economic correspondent, Neil Irwin. Thanks, Neil.

NEIL: Thanks for having me.

ERICA: Though jobs are slowly coming back, companies are still struggling to find workers to fill them in this “Great Resignation.” But here’s a bit of a silver lining for those stressed out recruiters: one in three people who sought out a new job last year looked for a position within their own company first. So HR might be able to fill some of those open roles with internal candidates who are already familiar with the company. We have this misconception that the “Great Resignation” means people are making dramatic changes, switching careers, moving across the country and starting completely anew. And while it’s true that a lot of us are craving change, it doesn’t always need to be that big.

We’re back in 15 seconds with the latest covid numbers.

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ERICA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Erica Pandey filling in for Niala Boodhoo. COVID cases in the U.S. are down in all but five states. But despite that bit of good news deaths continue to rise - up 34% in the last two weeks. Axios senior editor Sam Baker has been tracking how these numbers have changed week to week and joins us with the latest.

So Sam there's always been a lag between when cases peak versus deaths is that what's happening here?

SAM BAKER: That is part of what's happening here. Death's always - That’s always the last number to go up or down. But we are also seeing the effects of not having enough vaccinations in the U.S. That's why the number of deaths is as high as it is.

ERICA: And you've been updating the COVID map since the beginning of the pandemic. What's been the biggest trend you've noticed over time?

SAM: Nothing lasts. There was a brief little window when the vaccines first rolled out, cases were so low. And then it got worse again. We've seen deaths at preventable levels. We're just never all the way out of it.

ERICA: But compared to past peaks of case counts, does it seem at least like we're close to the end of the Omicron surge?

SAM: Uh, it does, yes. We're now seeing cases go down pretty quickly in every part of the country. This is pretty much how it went in other countries that got hit before us. So we're probably on our way back to, you know, whatever normal was before.

ERICA: Sam Baker is a senior editor at Axios. Thanks Sam.

SAM: Thanks Erica.

ERICA: The number of electric vehicles on the road more than doubled last year. And now roads are being developed that'll charge your electric car as you drive we're inching closer to an EV future. But when could it finally happen? Here to help us answer that question as Axios transportation reporter Joanne Mueller. Hey, Joann.


ERICA: Joann, this sounds like science fiction, a road that charges your car. How would it work?

JOANN: Well, yeah, I mean, and this is something that I think people have asked me about many times, ‘why can't the road just charge my car while I'm driving?’ People are hesitant to buy electric vehicles because it takes so long to charge them, but here's a way that you could actually just drive over a charging pad, either in a parking garage or on the road while you're driving. And the vehicle would charge as you go.

ERICA: So when will we start seeing these types of roads?

JOANN: Yeah, so the very first electrified road is going to be installed in Detroit. They've been trying to get a lot of this kind of innovation in Michigan, rather than in Silicon Valley where it seems like a lot of futuristic car tech is coming out of. And it will open, probably next year. It's being installed in partnership with the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit and something called the Michigan central district, which is a Ford backed, innovation district.

ERICA: It feels like every week we hear news about new electric car tech or another city investing in EVs or an EV company raising money. How do these roads fit into the big picture of our electric vehicle future? I feel like I'm seeing all of the pieces of the puzzle, but not the whole picture yet.

JOANN: We've been waiting for this electric vehicle movement for a long time, and I think we're at the inflection point. But don't forget this electrified road is really more about, honestly, commercial vehicles. So we're talking about transit buses and delivery vans and long haul trucks. But eventually it's possible that you and I will just drive a car that automatically charges and we never have to stop and plug in again.

ERICA: Joann Muller covers the future of transportation for Axios, and she writes the What's Next newsletter with me. Thanks, Joann.

JOANN: Thanks Erica.

ERICA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! I’m Erica Pandey - thanks for listening and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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