COVID-19. We’ve been living with it and talking about it for more than two years, and it will no doubt continue to impact our lives for years to come. But not as many people are talking about living with ongoing, long-term health issues after initially contracting the virus, a condition known as long COVID.
People with long COVID can experience a wide range of symptoms related to their previous COVID-19 illness. These issues can linger for weeks or months after a person’s initial COVID-19 illness. While anyone who has had COVID-19 can experience long COVID, those who had a severe case, are unvaccinated or have underlying health conditions are more likely to develop long COVID.
Right now, it’s hard to anticipate the long-term effects of long COVID, both in terms of health and societal impact. The potential workplace impact is just as foggy, but it’s evident that long COVID could have enormous consequences on employers and workers: Increased labor shortages and absenteeism, lost productivity and increased disability claims are just a few of the worries.
So, what exactly can workplaces do about this quieter pandemic? Are there any new policies or accommodations that should be established now? And how should employers address the effects of long COVID from an ADA perspective? Here are a few ideas that can help employers start planning amid a time of uncertainty.
Long COVID and the law
Depending on the severity and other factors, long COVID can qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A disability under the ADA means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits (as compared to most people) a person’s ability to perform a major life activity (like breathing or concentrating), which includes the operation of major bodily functions (like respiratory or neurological functions). The ADA requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations for job applicants and employees with disabilities unless doing so would cause the organization undue hardship. State and/or local laws may provide additional rights and protections.
Long COVID may also qualify as a serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires covered employers to provide eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave for, among other things, their own serious health condition. Serious health conditions under the FMLA include those that require an overnight hospital stay, that incapacitate a person for more than three consecutive days and require ongoing medical treatment, and chronic conditions. However, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to whether long COVID qualifies for FMLA leave. And again, state and/or local laws may provide additional rights and protections.
Long COVID can be severe or mild, last weeks or years, and present in any combination of symptoms. One person with suspected long COVID might be able to continue working with little to no issue while another might be bedridden for days or weeks. Employers must evaluate each situation on an employee-by-employee basis. But how can they decide whether an employee with long COVID needs to be accommodated, or qualifies for leave under the FMLA?
Consider this example: An employee recently recovered from a severe case of COVID. However, they continue to have COVID-related stomach issues, including pain, vomiting and severe nausea. These symptoms persist for several months, and the employee is diagnosed with long COVID.The employee can’t work for five consecutive days, and their health care provider recommends that the employee take additional time off from work to receive ongoing medical attention because the employee is unable to focus, eat or even sleep. The employee requests leave under the FMLA from their employer. Under these circumstances, the employee would likely qualify for leave under the FMLA for their own serious health condition.
Consider a second example: The same employee exhausts their twelve weeks of FMLA leave but cannot yet return to work due to ongoing gastrointestinal issues, insomnia and brain fog brought on by long COVID. The employee requests, as a reasonable accommodation, an additional four weeks of leave to treat his symptoms. Under these conditions, the employee’s long COVID may be a disability that must be accommodated with additional leave. The employee’s condition would likely not qualify as a disability if their symptoms resolved after a few weeks and didn’t return.
There is no legal requirement for employers to have a long COVID policy, so it’s entirely up to HR whether to adopt one or not. It’s arguably more important for HR teams to ensure that they have solid procedures in place for leave and accommodation requests.
How to accommodate employees with long COVID
Accommodations in the workplace start with the employee. Once an employee indicates they are struggling with work due to long COVID, the employer must work with the employee to find a reasonable solution.
As mentioned previously, long COVID can look completely different from person to person, so accommodation requests will vary. Employers may see requests such as:
- more time to complete tasks
- additional or more frequent breaks
- transfer to another position with different expectations or requirements
- workstation changes, such as moving to a desk closer to the restroom, air conditioning or water stations
- opportunities for remote work
- modified work schedules, such as reduced hours or compressed workdays
- modified non-essential job duties
- leave of absence
- time off for symptom flare-ups or medical appointments, or
- ergonomic equipment, such as a supportive chair, adjustable keyboard or standing desk.
Developing a plan
The long-term effects of COVID-19, as well as the incidence of long COVID in previously infected individuals, even with current data, remains unclear. Employers who start planning now will be in a good position to manage long COVID when it really matters. Some steps to consider:
- Stay informed about long COVID, its symptoms and how it can impact people in the workplace. Monitor the CDC’s website for more information. Staying abreast of any new information can help employers support and accommodate employees.
- Review guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other federal agencies regarding long COVID.
- Audit the current process around making accommodation and leave requests. This may include ensuring that:
- The process for making requests is straightforward, well-communicated and generally understood by employees.
- There is either an individual or department responsible for engaging with employees about their requests and documenting the process.
- All appropriate forms, such as requests for medical documentation from a doctor, are available.
- Communication with employees is open, ongoing and includes follow-ups when necessary.
Finally, know and understand your organization’s compliance obligations under federal, state and local leave and accommodation laws.