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‘Long COVID’ as a disability: Employers take note

Post-acute COVID syndrome, which is also known as “long haul COVID” or “long COVID,” refers to individuals infected with COVID-19 who experience new or recurring symptoms for months after their initial infection.

Approximately 11 million people in the U.S. have reported experiencing long COVID, an estimated 10 to 30 percent of people infected. Many of these individuals had a mild initial infection.

Symptoms can include shortness of breath, respiratory problems, muscle aches, anxiety, depression and fatigue, and can interfere with an individual’s ability to work.

While many individuals with long COVID may not think of themselves as disabled, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a “disability” as a condition that “substantially limits” a major life activity like sleeping, breathing or working.

That means long COVID symptoms may indeed rise to the level of a disability for which an employer must provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA.

It also means if an employee with long COVID makes a written or oral request for an accommodation, the employer must initiate an interactive process where the employer is entitled to limited medical documentation to verify the disability and to ask questions to clarify the reason for the accommodation and explore alternatives.

What kinds of accommodations might an employer consider for a worker with long COVID symptoms?

Possibilities include a modified or part-time schedule, rest periods during a shift, temporary reassignment to a vacant, less taxing position or providing equipment to help the employee do his or her work. This could be as simple as giving someone whose duties typically require standing for long periods a stool to lean on or sit on rather than spending the whole shift on their feet.

Additionally, accommodating an employee under the ADA doesn’t mean the employer has to give the worker whatever they ask for. The employer simply needs to provide what is necessary to enable the worker to perform the essential tasks of the job. For that matter, employers need not excuse the worker from performing his or her essential job functions, reduce required productivity levels, provide personal items or provide an accommodation that creates an unreasonable hardship for the employer.

The ADA also does not require employers to provide accommodations to allow employees to help disabled family members, but related obligations may arise under federal or state family leave laws.