We’re only beginning to understand the needs of workers with long Covid

Omicron likely added to the number of people with disabling long Covid, and HR has an opportunity to be proactive in creating a welcoming environment for them.
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New analysis from the Center for American Progress (CAP) think tank estimates that there are as many as half a million new disabled people in the labor force, in part as a result of the chronic symptoms of what has come to be known as long Covid, the umbrella term for Covid symptoms that persist for more than four weeks after being infected.

The CAP report came two months after the EEOC updated its guidance for employers on when long Covid is considered a disability. And with more companies reopening offices this month, disability advocates and some legal experts say HR teams should be prepared to respond to accommodation requests from employees who currently have, or may develop, disabling long Covid.

Workplace adaptation. The EEOC’s December guidance came in the middle of the nation’s omicron variant wave, the full effects of which health experts say they won’t fully understand for months. The guidance states that the ADA’s three-part definition of disability applies to Covid the same way it does to any other disability; therefore employers are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabling long Covid.

The CAP report states that “workplaces will need to adapt to the new needs of employees (with long Covid). In addition, an understanding of the ways in which disability affects employment will become more important than ever in analyses of the US labor market.”

So far, there have been 23,000 Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claims citing Covid as a condition, but if the SSDI claim is approved, it can take five months before the individual receives a check.

Heidi’s story. Heidi Ferrer was an active woman before she came down with Covid in April 2020. Her husband, Nick Guthe, said she could easily walk 90 minutes a day and had a successful career as a screenwriter and blogger, writing for shows like Dawson’s Creek and Wasteland.

We recently spoke with Guthe, who said that Ferrer’s symptoms started off fairly benign with discolored toes (often referred to as “Covid toes”), but by May, Ferrer had serious neuropathy in her feet, with shooting pains that made walking difficult, her husband recalled. Over the next year, she experienced exhaustion, tachycardia, and GI problems, all of which made her previous daily routines, including working in a writers' room, impossible.

Her situation fluctuated, as is common for long Covid sufferers, but her symptoms persisted and expanded, with nighttime chest tremors, brain fog, and continued painful neuropathy in her feet. A little more than a year after she first came down with Covid, Ferrer died by suicide on May 26, 2021. Her husband says she died from long Covid.

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Today, Guthe spends his time building awareness about long Covid through Survivor Corps, a Covid patient advocacy movement.

Accomodation awareness. The CAP report says that perceived stigma may be a barrier to people requesting accommodations for their long Covid, but that HR departments must adapt to these newly (and sometimes temporarily) disabled workers. Employees may also not fully understand that they have reasonable accommodation rights. For employers looking for ways to accommodate employees with disabling long Covid, the Job Accommodation Network, a free resource providing guidance on workplace accommodations, provides a comprehensive list of potential accommodations based on symptoms.

Becky Kekula, director of the Disability Equality Index at DisabilityIN, an organization driving disability inclusion in business, recommends that HR departments create a safe place, especially for those who don’t yet identify as disabled but may need accommodations.

“What I always encourage is having multiple touch points (with HR) and this starts even when someone’s applying for a job,” Kekula said. “Put it out there everywhere possible. ‘If you’re in need of an accommodation, please let us know, email or call.’”

Kekula also views the rise of remote work as one silver lining in the pandemic, because “it allowed people the opportunity to work from home and it has allowed a lot more people with disabilities to participate in the workforce.”

Flex works. Guthe believes “remote-work options are the only way people are going to be able to continue to work with long Covid.” He stressed that symptoms of long Covid can vary; his wife had GI symptoms and her feet were in constant pain, so driving to an office wouldn’t have been feasible.

“[The] first thing [business leaders] need to understand is that people with long Covid want nothing more than to resume their old lives,” Guthe said. “They unfortunately now have a series of symptoms that makes returning to their old lives extremely challenging.”—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.