A record spike in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant is causing a nationwide worker "sickout," disrupting businesses ranging from grocery stores to airlines. The past few weeks have been "hellacious," Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian said in a Thursday conference call with analysts and reporters. The executive said 8,000 employees have contracted COVID-19 in the last four weeks alone — about 10% of the carrier's workforce — a toll that contributed to more than 2,200 cancelled flights since December 24. Although a precise count of the number of employees who are out sick sick or quarantining is hard to come by, about 5 million Americans could be isolating due to COVID-19 at the peak of Omicron, according to Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics. That could reflect about 2% of the nation's workforce forced to stay home due to illness, he added. Some employers report taking a harder hit. Stew Leonard Jr., chief executive of supermarket chain Stew Leonard's, said that about 8% of his staff was out sick or quarantining last week. That affects what shoppers find on store shelves. "That's the highest we've ever had," he told CBS MoneyWatch. "What we are doing is the same as every other business — you have to limit your product line." Leonard added, "Like I talked with my bakery director, and she said, 'I make a great crumb cake, and I also make a great apple crumb cake, but when I'm short on people I'm not able to make the apple crumb cake.' You'll get crumb cake, just not the apple crumb cake." COVID-19 cases are averaging almost 1 million a day nationally based on a seven-day moving average, the highest number since the pandemic began in early 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. That may even be an undercount, given that many people with COVID-19 are taking at-home rapid tests and likely not reporting positive results to their local health authorities. "We don't know the exact number where cases will peak, but it's looking like it'll already be into the millions to some extent," Hunter said. "That is big enough to have some noticeable impact on the broader economy." The worker shortages are compounding earlier pandemic problems, including supply-chain disruptions and shortages of some services. During a conference call this week, one CEO of a consumer packaged goods company said the business was cutting production lines by 20% to cope with high numbers of absent workers, according to Andrea Woods, a spokeswoman for the trade group Consumer Brands Association. Because the call was off the record, she wasn't able to share details about the company. About 75% of consumer packaged goods companies in a recent survey said they had experienced an increase in absenteeism due to positive COVID-19 tests or exposure to someone with the virus, Woods added. "We are still dealing with a massive driver shortage — 80,000 and counting — with one truck available for every 16 loads. Omicron only intensifies that problem," she said. "Absenteeism in warehouses is resulting in late shipments, and retailers don't have the employee base to restock shelves." That's clear to shoppers across the nation, who are often encountering empty shelves — as well as higher prices due to the highest rate of inflation in nearly 40 years . . . read the full article here.