Do You Have a Plan for Employees With Long COVID?
The worst of the pandemic may be over, but for employees with long COVID, navigating the workplace can be a constant battle.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one in five American adults who caught the virus now have long COVID. While the symptoms and duration can vary, long COVID is often compared to chronic fatigue syndrome. It can cause tiredness, brain fog, sleep problems, a lingering cough, dizziness, anxiety and heart palpitations, among other conditions.
These symptoms often get worse after physical or mental effort, which is known as “post-exertional malaise,” and they can linger for months. Yet there is no test to confirm long-COVID or to vet how bad it will be.
That puts employers in a precarious position. “If you've got an employee who says they have long COVID because they're not feeling well,” said Carol Harnett, president of the Council for Disability Awareness, don't brush it off. It can be easy for managers to dismiss an employee's claims of long COVID because they can seem nebulous and convenient, but if companies want to keep these employees — and avoid discrimination lawsuits – they need a formal plan.
Long COVID Is a Disability
Long COVID fits the definition of a disability according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That means employers can't just fire these employees. Rather, they have to provide appropriate accommodations for employees with long COVID to perform their duties to the best of their abilities. If they don’t, they can be fairly accused of discrimination.
“Long COVID is forcing employers to do what they should have done before the pandemic: look closely at the illness and disability coverage they offer their employees,” said Aron Solomon, head of strategy and chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital. “Each company and its employees will need a unique approach based on their needs, so it's important to work with the insurer to craft a policy tailored specifically for the company.”
Some insurers require approvals to see a cardiologist or pulmonologist, which can add weeks to the treatment journey, said Harnett. In those cases, she encourages companies to advocate on behalf of their employees. “I'd make sure that they can help that employee get into the right care and move through that process as quickly as possible.”
Ensuring employees see a doctor can also help them uncover hidden ailments. One of the underlying risks of long COVID is that a person assumes that it is causing symptoms that are actually a result of an undiagnosed disease. Harnett has spoken to physicians about patients who found out they had cancer when they assumed their symptoms were COVID-related.
“It is really important that you rule out other illnesses,” Harnett said. Identifying local clinics or hospitals that have experience with long COVID diagnoses can help accelerate this process.
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Back to Work
Once healthcare is covered, employers should determine what they will do to accommodate affected employees on the job. Most long COVID sufferers can still work; they just may not have the same level of stamina or clarity for a while.
Of course, how a manager accommodates employees' symptoms will vary depending on the employee’s position, symptoms and responsibilities. For a desk employee, for instance, accommodations may be as simple as continuing to allow them to work from home and encouraging mid-day breaks. But for front-line workers, it’s more complicated.
A University of Michigan study found that long COVID is more prevalent among those with lower incomes, and these demographics are more likely to hold front-line physical jobs that tax their energy. If they have long COVID, it can make them unable to do the work. Accommodations for these employees may therefore include short-term disability, personal leave, shorter hours or moving them into less laborious roles.
“It's important to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for providing support to employees suffering from COVID,” Solomon said. Accommodating employees who cannot work can feel frustrating, especially in a tight labor market, but employers need to consider the consequences of not taking them seriously.
“If you have good well-trained employees who have long COVID, consider the risk of losing them,” Harnett said. It will likely take just as long to replace that employee as it takes them to recover. Plus, disregarding sick employees’ needs sets a tone that can permeate the company culture.
"Employees are getting more confident about how employers should treat them,” said Harnett. “You don’t want to be on shaky ground with the people you want to work for you.”