How Organizations Can Accommodate Employees With Long COVID
Even though the federal COVID-19 public health emergency ended last month, the longer-term effects of the virus persist. Associations need to know what is expected of them if employees request accommodation for long COVID and associated conditions.
Although the federal public health emergency for COVID-19 expired on May 11, the effects of the virus haven’t gone away for many people.
According to a November 2022 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report [PDF], between 7.7 million and 23 million Americans have long COVID and experience a wide range of symptoms (e.g., fatigue that interferes with daily life, difficulty breathing, persistent cough, brain fog) that can last weeks, months, or years. In 2021, the federal government clarified that long COVID could be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Long COVID is just like any other disability that an employee may have that an employer needs to accommodate,” said Julia Judish, special counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. “Unlike cancer or a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, long COVID isn’t a single condition, and it may take a while for an employee with long COVID to get the diagnosis.”
From an employer’s point of view, the issue comes down to whether the employee has a medically supported impairment that affects their ability to do their job. If they do, the employer is responsible for providing reasonable accommodations.
Approaching these situations with an open mind and talking with employees about their needs can help associations effectively support employees with long COVID.
Recognize the Challenges
Like any other disability, employers should not make assumptions about what employees with long COVID do or don’t need to do their jobs. Some employers may feel initial distrust when receiving an accommodation request, especially if they had COVID themselves without lingering effects. In addition, if an employee mentions their diagnosis in passing, employers shouldn’t assume the employee can’t do their job without accommodations.
“Talk to your employee,” Judish said. “Ask for a certification from their healthcare provider that identifies the impairments and limitations. If an employee mentions they have long COVID, you can put them in touch with HR to discuss the matter confidentially about whether they need accommodation.”
Once the employer receives the request, the ADA requires the employee to engage in an “interactive process” to explore and potentially identify a reasonable accommodation. This conversation should be a two-way street where both sides make a good faith effort to comply with the other person’s reasonable requests.
Assess Accommodations Individually
Knowing an employee’s specific needs is crucial because reasonable accommodation will look different for everyone.
For example, if an employee with long COVID has persistent fatigue and reduced energy, it could be a reasonable accommodation to allow them to work from home. However, that might not be reasonable accommodation for a meetings coordinator who needs to be at in-person events and conferences.
“A lot of it depends on essential job functions,” Judish said. “Take an association’s annual meeting, for example. Though all staff pitch in, it’s not an essential job function for most staff, so it may be a reasonable accommodation to sit out of it. But for an employee in meetings or membership, planning or running the meeting might be in their job description.”
Persistent brain fog can be a challenging long COVID symptom to accommodate because the ADA does not require employers to lower performance expectations for employees with disabilities. However, there may be ways for managers to outline tasks or communicate with staff that will improve their performance.
“It may be helpful for someone with those symptoms to have their responsibilities or tasks in writing to refer to rather than remembering what’s been told to them,” Judish said.
However, if the quality or accuracy of the work is adversely affected, that’s not something the law requires employers to accommodate other than perhaps by providing medical leave, according to Judish. This can be considered reasonable accommodation when it helps the employee return to work after the period of leave.
“In those cases, the employer should try to support the employee by pointing them to resources for paid leave,” Judish said. “If it’s a really incapacitating case, the employee might qualify for short- or long-term disability.”