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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Millions of Americans are calling in sick or isolating, leaving employers scrambling and forcing low-income workers to go without pay or risk going into work.

Why it matters: The latest pandemic health crisis is undermining employers, draining the bottom line and risking reduced output.

  • Industries with workers that can't do their jobs at home are expected to be hit the hardest.
  • More than 5 million Americans, or 2% of the workforce, “could now be isolating,” Capital Economics economist Andrew Hunter estimated.

Threat level: Worker shortages are already bludgeoning employers, which had 3.85 million more job openings than the economy had unemployed workers as of November.

  • With absenteeism spreading, that's expected to worsen, causing more flight cancelations, restaurant closures, product shortages and reduced public services.
  • “Things are only likely to get worse in the near term,” Hunter notes.

Between the lines: Nearly 1 in 4 private-sector workers don’t have paid sick time, including about 7 in 10 of the lowest-paid employees, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

Context: Democrats had included paid sick leave in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, but the initiative is dead for now after they were unable to gather enough support on Capitol Hill amid opposition from Republicans.

  • “It’s completely indefensible that two years into a global pandemic we don’t have comprehensive, guaranteed paid sick time,” CLASP worker advocate Emily Andrews tells Axios.

The other side: Opponents of mandatory paid sick leave say it doesn’t prevent workplace illnesses or reduce employee turnover.

The bottom line: Expect Omicron-related absenteeism to continue disrupting your life.

Go deeper

Jan 15, 2022 - Health

Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron

Three COVID-19 testing companies place testing locations outside Grand Central Terminal on Jan. 14 in New York City. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Experts are warning that subsequent COVID-19 variants are likely to come after Omicron, AP reports.

Why it matters: The warnings come as there's no guarantee that subsequent variants "will cause milder illness or that existing vaccines will work against them," underscoring the need for widespread vaccination, AP writes.

Starbucks drops worker vaccine mandate after SCOTUS ruling

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks announced in a memo to employees Tuesday that it has dropped plans to implement a vaccine mandate for all U.S. workers, AP reported on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The company's decision comes in response to the Supreme Court's ruling last week to block the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

2 hours ago - World

Netanyahu plea talks enter crunch time

Netanyahu (right) meets with his lawyer ahead of a court hearing last February. Photo: Reuven Casto/Pool/AFP via Getty

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's opposition leader and former prime minister, is negotiating a possible plea deal over the corruption charges against him, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit appears to be toughening his terms.

Why it matters: Mandelblit leaves office on Jan. 31. Negotiations could continue beyond that point, but the next attorney general may be less interested in quickly reaching a deal.