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Omicron whips through the workforce, pushing overstretched staffs to the brink

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Katie Johnston
The Boston Globe
January 8, 2022

As Omicron whips through the workforce, caregiving agencies are turning away new patients. Restaurants are shutting down. Construction jobs are being delayed. Retailers, including Macy’s, are limiting hours.

And some small business owners are at the breaking point.

The colossally contagious COVID-19 variant emerged at the worst possible time for employers, as workers — many of them vaccinated and eager to socialize — were gathering with family members over the holidays. Infections flattened entire families at once in some cases. And for organizations that don’t have the luxury of allowing people to work remotely, the surge in positive cases is exacerbating a long-simmering staffing crisis that has grown even more urgent in recent months as record numbers of people quit their jobs.

At Advocates in Framingham, a human services agency serving Central and Eastern Massachusetts, more than 90 of 1,500 staffers tested positive last week; most of them work with people who have developmental disabilities or mental health challenges. Seven group homes are under quarantine due to infected residents, meaning staffers can’t help cover shortages at other sites.

Some employees were already working 18-hour shifts to make up for shortages, or living in group homes to cover shifts, said president Diane Gould, and now the organization is calling on employees with office jobs to provide direct care to clients. Some individuals who attend day programs have had to stay home because there isn’t enough staff, and admissions to respite care have been closed.

“My fear is that it’s going to continue to increase for the next few weeks,” she said.