Long COVID-19 can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and employers need to know how to provide accommodations for those workers, panelists said during a March 9 webinar.
The webinar, hosted by the Job Accommodation Network, a service provided through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy to offer guidance on job accommodations and disability employment issues, covered the effects of the disease in the workplace.
“We are beginning to see the cost and impact of long COVID,” said Terri Rhodes, CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, an education provider for absence management professionals.
Medical spending increased 203% per month for those with long COVID compared to those with COVID-19 that appeared to resolve, according to a study released in August by Nomi Health. That will result in an expected $9,000 increase per case over six months, the direct healthcare company said.
What complicates the issue is that there are “significant inadequacies” in both the healthcare system and the disability healthcare ecosystem, said Bryon Bass, senior vice president of disability and absence management at Sedgwick, a third-party claims administrator. Those with symptoms of long COVID are not always receiving respiratory and occupational therapy or insurers are restricting access to those therapies, Bass said. Additionally, federal benefits and insurance often doesn’t cover partial disability, which can be experienced by people with long COVID.
“Long COVID is proving to be a condition that is taking a long amount of time to actually diagnose. In fact, healthcare providers are ruling out all other kinds of conditions first, before they get to a point where they have a long COVID diagnosis, and, in many cases, the long COVID diagnosis may come four to six months after an individual starts the treatment for the symptoms outside of the acute phase of COVID,” Bass said.
Tracie DeFreitas, director of training, services and outreach for JAN, said employers should not “get bogged down in determining a disability” and instead focus on whether a reasonable accommodation can be made for that worker.
“Employers should always err on the side of finding coverage,” DeFreitas said. “Keep in mind that a diagnosis may not be necessary to move forward with providing accommodations. Even if an employee does not have an official diagnosis, a healthcare provider should be able to document that the employee has an impairment or how the impairment affects the employee with daily activities.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 6,000 charges of discrimination related to COVID-19 from April 2020 through December 2021, according to reporting by Bloomberg Law.
“That gives you an idea of the scope and magnitude of what we have in front of us and what we need to be thinking about as employers,” Bass said.
Accommodations can include scheduling flexibility, remote or hybrid work, modified duties, providing a private work space or using environmental sound machines or headsets to reduce distractions, among other solutions, DeFreitas said.
“This is the most important tip: Do not use a one-size-fits-all approach. Accommodation needs are different based on the individual. Make sure you are treating each person on a case-by-case basis,” DeFreitas said.