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By: Helios on August 5th, 2021

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Long Covid Symptoms: What They Mean for Employers Under ADA

COVID-19

During the Covid-19 pandemic, attention was focused on the virus itself and its immediate effects. But as the year rolled on, doctors around the world began to notice that some people were experiencing another illness that lasted for weeks, or even months after contracting Covid. Even those people who had experienced an asymptomatic infection were experiencing what we now recognize as Long Covid symptoms, such as heart palpitations and brain fog.

Fast forward to July 2021, where evidence now shows that this condition is almost a pandemic in itself. Around 1 in 3 people who’ve had coronavirus will go onto develop Long Covid symptoms of varying intensity. There’s no timescale for recovery. Some people get over it in a few weeks or months, while others are still waiting to recover.

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Long Covid is such a problem that the Department of Health and Human Services recently issued guidelines about the rights of Long Covid sufferers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). All of which raises concerns for employers. Will your people need extra support if they experience Long Covid? How do you stay compliant with the new ADA definition of Long Covid? How do you even know if someone has Long Covid?

What are the symptoms of Long Covid?

Researchers are still trying to understand the precise link between Covid-19 and Long Covid (also known as Long-Haul Covid.) What we know for sure is that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has defined a range of Long Covid symptoms. Some of these may directly impact an employee's work performance, such as:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”)
  • Dizziness on standing (light-headedness)
  • Sleep problems
  • Mood changes

Each individual might present a unique set of symptoms. The intensity of these symptoms can also vary. For some, Long Covid might be so severe that it prevents them from performing their regular daily activities. 

Is Long Covid considered a disability under ADA?

On August 3rd, 1991, HHS issued new guidelines that stated Long Covid could be considered a disability under Title II (state and local government) and Title III (public accommodations) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The guidelines state that:

A person with long COVID has a disability if the person’s condition or any of its symptoms is a “physical or mental” impairment that “substantially limits” one or more major life activities.

This means that Long Covid is not, in itself, a disability. Instead, employers need to look at things on a case-by-case basis and consider how Long Covid symptoms are affecting the individual. If the employee is genuinely struggling to fulfill their duties due to illness, then you may have an obligation under ADA to provide reasonable accommodations.

These guidelines don’t mention Title I, which means that they don’t explicitly apply to private employers. However, the government’s intention seems to be towards stronger protections for Long Covid sufferers, so this situation may evolve. State and local laws are also subject to change.

Long Covid and FMLA leave

We have yet to see any major changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in relation to Covid or Long Covid. As it stands, covered employers have to provide unpaid FMLA leave if the employee has a valid medical need, such as Long Covid symptoms.

In some cases, employees might need reasonable accommodations as per the ADA and additional time off under FMLA. For example, an employee with Long Covid symptoms might ask for permission to work flexible hours so they can take a break if they experience fatigue of brain fog. They might also take FMLA leave when required so they can see a doctor or take a rest.

Supporting employees with Long Covid symptoms

Long Covid is a serious impairment that could happen to any of us. It seems to strike at random, with healthy people as likely to experience symptoms as those with other medical conditions.

Here are a few things you can do to look out for employees who might be affected:

  1. Be aware of Long Covid symptoms. Local managers should learn to recognize the symptoms of this condition, especially as they relate to on-the-job performance. For example, if someone starts making lots of mistakes, they might be struggling with brain fog or fatigue.
  2. Review your benefits program. Employees might not realize how their benefits can help them get through difficult times. Send out communications about available health care options and other resources that they can use if they’re struggling.
  3. Update your Employee Assistance Program. EAPs should be the go-to resource for any employee who is struggling with their physical or mental health. Make sure your EAP is prepared to deal with the unique challenges of Long Covid. It’s also a good idea to remind employees of the support available through their EAP.
  4. Be flexible. Long-term illness always disrupts the sufferer’s daily routine. You can help make things less stressful by giving employees the flexibility to work around their illness. Encourage local leaders to draw up flexible weekly plans that allow people to work when they’re feeling at their best.
  5. Create a culture of support. Did you know that only 39% of people with disabilities have informed their manager? People worry that an illness or disability will impact their standing within the team, or that it might hinder their chances of promotion. Leaders can counteract this by nurturing a culture that supports everyone equally, even when they’re ill.

Hopefully, everyone with Long Covid will recover over time. In the meantime, it’s up to employers to offer support and help their teams to manage any challenges that may arise from post Covid-19 health problems.

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