What Long COVID-19 means for employers

My COVID-19 story starts a year ago with a little cough. My wife and I were on the vaccination path and then our toddler came home from school not feeling well. The next day, she had developed a ‘barky’ cough which quickly turned into gasping for air and an immediate trip to the emergency room. Scary with a 2-year-old, but after some serious steroids and monitoring in the ER, we were on our way back home.

Then our entire family tested positive. Thankfully, our daughter was on the road to recovery with some rest, and water ice. My wife, my son and I were okay.

Everyone has a COVID story, and each is unique. My family was very fortunate, and thankfully, we are fine today. But for some, the effects linger well into the future. It’s called Long COVID-19, with ongoing symptoms that can last weeks or months after the initial infection.

As employers, it’s important that we recognize this, and familiarize ourselves with our obligations to assist individuals with this condition.

According to the CDC, Long COVID-19 can occur in anyone who has contracted the illness, even if it was mild or there were no initial symptoms. Some of the most common are:

  • Cough, breathing difficulty, shortness of breath
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Thinking difficulties or concentration issues (“Brain fog”)
  • Symptoms that get worse after physical or mental activities (also known as post-exertional malaise)
  • Fast-beating or pounding heart
  • Pain: Headache, stomach, chest, joint or muscles
  • Changes in smell or taste

The CDC says that other symptoms can include a pins-and-needles feeling, diarrhea, sleep problems, fever, mood swings, dizziness on standing (lightheadedness), rash, and changes in menstrual period cycles. Unfortunately, the symptoms overlap with many common health issues, often making it difficult to diagnose.

Long COVID-19’s disruption on workplaces

According to one research study, approximately 30% of patients with COVID-19 had persistent symptoms (University of Washington), with fatigue being the most common. Another found that about 73% of patients had at least one symptom 60 days after the initial diagnosis (Stanford University).

For employers, that means a significant number of workers may continue to deal with COVID-19 well into the future. It also means providing accommodations to employees who meet certain qualifications.

The U.S. Department of Justice considers the illness  a potential disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “An individualized assessment is necessary to determine whether a person’s Long COVID-19 condition or any of its symptoms substantially limits a major life activity.”

Employer actions

With the potential for ongoing Long COVID-19 impacts, employers should consider taking action to safeguard their workplaces. The following steps can help:

  • Educate staff on the symptoms. Knowledge is power. Introduce your team to the idea of Long COVID-19, including its potential symptoms, so everyone knows what to look out for.
  • Foster open communication. Encourage employees to talk to their managers if they’re experiencing any prolonged health issues that may impact their performance, even if the employees are unsure whether the symptoms stem from COVID-19 or not

  • Have remote work backup plans. Consider having employees work from home when they’re dealing with Long COVID-19, as the symptoms may not be debilitating in some cases.
  • Be adaptable and accommodating. If you have individuals experiencing the condition, work with them to find a way to effectively manage their symptoms while still accomplishing job duties. For instance, if an employee cannot focus on tasks due to brain fog, perhaps they could be retrained for a different role. Other potential accommodations include job restructuring, modified scheduling or role reassignment.
  • Train managers to recognize Long COVID-19 ADA requests. ADA reasonable accommodation requests do not need to be submitted in writing (can be verbal) or even include the phrase “reasonable accommodation.” As such, managers should be trained to recognize when an employee with Long COVID-19 symptoms may be making such a request and should initiate a dialogue to begin the process.

Companies need to stay agile and have a plan in place for working with employees who experience prolonged symptoms. NEMR Total HR is here to advise businesses on a plan for Long COVID. Chat with us or contact us here.