After COVID-19 changed the landscape of the American workplace, its step-sister “Long COVID” is now threatening to do the same. As a result of COVID’s long-term after-effects, many workers are finding it difficult to keep up with the demands of their jobs. Some are dropping out of the U.S. labor force altogether, whether they choose to leave or are told to go. But instead of losing good talent, is there anything employees and employers can do to retain these workers?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines “Long COVID” as “new, returning, or ongoing health problems” that are attributable to COVID-19 infection and persist or appear at 4 weeks or more following initial infection. The umbrella term can refer to such conditions as “brain fog,” fatigue, heart palpitations, lightheadedness, headache, joint or muscle pain, sleep problems, changes in smell or taste, and difficulty breathing, among many others.
According to recent numbers, there have been around 94 million cases of COVID in the U.S. and nearly 1 million resultant deaths. But a recent study suggests that number may be much higher. Almost 60% of Americans—an estimated 200 million people—have likely had exposure to COVID infection at some point. Further, Long COVID has may have affected up to 23 million people in the U.S. In addition to negatively impacting the healthcare system and education, this cluster of symptoms has had a major effect on American labor. It is probable that Long COVID has now pushed about 1 million people out of the workforce entirely. Some estimates run as high as 4 million full-time workers, or 2.4% of the working population!
Long COVID can be a difficult thing to explain to others, including bosses. How do you convey that you have a fever that comes and goes, or intermittent heart arrhythmias that pop up unannounced and aren’t being detected on EKGs? Or that you are as productive as you’ve always been for about half the day, but you are often too tired to concentrate on technical reading for long periods of time or to sit through extended meetings for the other half?
Employees with such symptoms often feel embarrassed to bring up unseen medical issues. They may feel ashamed to admit any drop in productivity and think they simply need to power through to good health and greater efficiency. They may also fear mentioning anything to a manager. On the other hand, managers might feel as though employees are picking and choosing the tasks they want to do and simply using COVID to justify getting out of some of their work.
Some frustrated bosses have resorted to discipline to improve productivity of employees with Long COVID. Some, for example, have placed their workers on probation or subjected them to a performance improvement plan (PIP). While these methods may work for employees who are not hitting their targets or whose work quality has fallen because of factors within their control, they are not recommended when medical issues underlie the drop-off in productivity.
Some businesses have even terminated employees experiencing the ongoing effects of Long COVID. While that solves the short-term problem of an underperforming employee, it has long-term consequences. Terminating employees because of health problems can demoralize and strike fear in a company’s remaining workforce. It can also leave a business vulnerable to potential litigation. Business owners and managers might wonder what else they could do in certain circumstances. And employees will wonder how they can demonstrate that what they are experiencing is real and in need of attention.
What Can You Do?
Long COVID is inherently difficult, and no business’s response will be perfect. Nonetheless, there are certain measures that both workers and managers can take to mitigate its effects on their work.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has designated Long COVID a “disability” that deserves protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Long COVID’s characteristics place it in the same class as many other “invisible disabilities” that are not readily visible to employers or co-workers. Chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, endometriosis, and connective tissue disorders are among well-documented hidden disabilities.
Under the ADA, employees may ask for certain “reasonable accommodations” through an “interactive process” with their employer. Employers with 15 or more employees must engage in a good-faith back-and-forth with the employee to determine if a reasonable, effective accommodation exists that allows the employee to carry out the essential functions of the job. Employers can deny an accommodation request if it imposes an undue burden or is unrelated to job performance. Accommodations can include increased scheduling flexibility, a room with dimmer lights, more frequent rest breaks, or working from home more often. Prinz attorney Laura Lefkow-Hynes has provided a comprehensive guide to requesting an accommodation for COVID-19 here.
If symptoms are so intense that routine accommodations are not enough, an employee may consider asking to take a very brief medical leave or intermittent FMLA. A very brief leave of absence of a couple of days to a couple of weeks from work may constitute a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. Generally, the ADA applies to workers who can work and does not excuse an inability to work.
Employees can also consider taking medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within one calendar year. The FMLA only applies to employees who have worked for 12 months for an employer who has 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of the employee’s jobsite. One’s job is protected during this time, and there are penalties employers can face for retaliating against anyone taking FMLA leave or interfering with an employee’s access to FMLA leave.
Intermittent FMLA is taking leave in separate blocks of time for a single reason, usually for planned medical treatment when you have exhausted sick leave. An employer may transfer you to a different job that can better accommodate routine periods of leave, so long as your salary and benefits remain the same. Some states offer additional medical leave protections, such as longer leave periods or paid leave. Your company might also have a policy offering additional benefits.
Many employers also have their own long-term or short-term disability leave insurance policies. These disability leaves usually entail paying the concerned employee a fraction of usual earnings while on leave and are subject to the various restrictions of the insurance policies. All of these leaves are potential avenues that can be used to retain good employees who happen to be experiencing a lingering medical condition. It is important to note that short-term disability does not protect your job. FMLA protects your job, but does not provide income. If you should apply for short-term disability, make sure that you are also applying for job-protected leave from your employer.
What You Shouldn’t Do
Employees should attempt to think of accommodations that are focused on the essential functions of their job and are amenable for both parties and bring those to their managers. As an employee, you should not demand one or two narrow accommodations, especially if they place a heavy burden on the employer.
On the other hand, employers must be careful not to retaliate against any employee asking for accommodations or requesting a medical leave. Even the appearance of doing so can create distrust and fear among your workforce. It can also lead to potential litigation. As always, consult with an experienced employment attorney if you have questions about your particular situation.