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Effects of Reduced Workplace Presence on COVID-19 Deaths: An Instrumental-Variables Approach

17 Pages Posted: 6 Jan 2021

See all articles by John McLaren

John McLaren

University of Virginia; NBER

Su Wang

University of Virginia


Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper


Background: A wide range of government policies in the face of COVID-19 have attempted to encourage workers to stay away from their regular workplace, on the assumption that this will lower transmission of the virus. This study attempts to evaluate that assumption. It attempts to measure the effect of absence from the workplace in the aggregate on COVID deaths at the county level in the US up to the end of August.

Methods: A major difficulty is the reverse-causation problem: outbreaks can cause people to stay home. We use an instrumental-variables strategy to deal with this, using an index of how many local workers pre-pandemic would be able to work from home based on differences in occupational mix across counties. We display four specifications and find strong support for a PPML formulation with the IV and time-varying effects.

Findings: We find no discernable effect of workplace absence on deaths until mid-May. After that we find a sharply rising effect. At the end of our sample we find that moving 10 percent of workers in a county out of the workplace would lower deaths there by two thirds one month later.

Interpretation: These results provide strong support for policies to move workers out of the workplace where possible when COVID cases are expected to be widespread.

Funding: The authors used only existing general research funds for this project.

Declaration of Interests: Both authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Suggested Citation

McLaren, John and Wang, Su, Effects of Reduced Workplace Presence on COVID-19 Deaths: An Instrumental-Variables Approach. Available at SSRN: or

John McLaren (Contact Author)

University of Virginia ( email )

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Su Wang

University of Virginia ( email )

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