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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic is striking directly at the heart of what has historically made America stronger than almost any other global economy — our awesome productivity.

Why it matters: Modern recessions, even the Great Recession of 2008-9, have tended to have little to no effect on how efficiently America produces goods and services. This recession is different. COVID-19 has hammered the potency of our companies and workers.

How it works: COVID-19 has deeply changed the way the country works.

  • Working from home has damaged companies that invested in sparking creativity and innovation by bringing employees together in thoughtfully-designed offices.
  • Teachers worry more about distancing and ventilation than they do about education.
  • In nursing homes, aides now have one job — preventing the spread of the virus — that has a higher priority than everything else.
  • In travel, the basic economics of whole industries have been upended. It takes just as many pilots to fly a socially-distanced plane, for instance, as it does to fly a full one.

Show me a business that involves individuals entering a building, and I'll show you a business where leaders are being urged to put significant new resources towards social distancing, ventilation, temperature checks, health attestations, contact-tracing databases, ubiquitous hand sanitizer stations, and myriad other COVID-related expenses.

  • While employers are forced to spend time and money on such projects, employees are also being hit hard. Many are struggling with suicidal thoughts, while Wall Street executives talk about having to deal with "rolling nervous breakdowns.”
  • "People are living at work," says Abby Levine, a principal in Deloitte's real estate group. "That has a physical, emotional, and mental impact."

By the numbers: The recession is bad enough — deeper and faster than anything we've experienced in living memory. The hit to productivity comes on top of that.

  • Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom sees productivity declines within firms of between 5% and 10%. "These falls are not surprising," he says, "but are absolutely massive."
  • For some service-industry sectors, the decline in productivity means thousands of businesses have to shut down entirely, since they can no longer make a profit. Restaurants are a prime example.

The bottom line: So long as COVID-19 continues to spread at a rate of more than 50,000 new cases per day, the virus will continue to act as a deadweight on the economy, depressing productivity — and total economic output — to well below pre-crisis levels.

Go deeper

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
Nov 10, 2020 - Economy & Business

The business case for child care

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inextricable link between child care and the economy — and it's pushing businesses to confront the cost of working parents' unpaid side gig.

The big picture: Child care is denting the workforce, preventing a huge swath of Americans from contributing to their firms and to the economy at large. To chip away at the problem, and protect their bottom lines, employers are bulking up child care benefits for workers.

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.