I recently sat in on a teleconference made up of researchers, medical specialists, policy makers, mental health experts, disability advocates and a plethora of other professionals, where the long-term effects of COVID 19 were discussed. The novelty of this illness means that research is in the early stages of understanding those long-term effects. But one thing is certain - COVID 19 is going to be with us for a long time.
You may be familiar with the terms “Long COVID” or “Long Haulers.” These terms refer to some of the unusual lasting results of this flu. In some people, COVID 19 produces nonspecific symptoms for weeks and months after having it. For example, headaches, memory loss, hearing loss, no appetite for weeks and months, debilitating fatigue, mental health problems, to name a few. And it’s unknown if these maladies will become permanent disabilities.
The ADA protects an individual who has a mental or physical impairment that significantly restricts a major life activity, such as eating, seeing, hearing, walking, thinking, and working (again, just to name a few examples). Now imagine a new population that may now experience what could be considered a disability. What will this mean in the workplace?
If you are an employer, or an HR professional, you are probably already receiving requests for accommodations that you think may be questionable under the ADA. Examples could be a request for continuing to telework after the office is back open for a “high-risk” employee, a modification of an employer’s safety requirements, or others. Employees may be wondering if their medical condition is covered under the ADA, even if they are not permanent or severe, and whether they can ask for an accommodation or not.
The answer to all these questions is “it depends.”
COVID 19 has not changed the requirements to ensure non-discrimination in the workplace, and this includes providing accommodations related to the current pandemic. As always, it is important to engage in an interactive process between the employee and the employer. This is the first step to determine what the second and third steps will be.
This is just the start of work accommodations related to Long COVID. So, it’s very important to be aware and have a plan in place when these requests are made. Remember that an employee does not have to say any specific words such as “reasonable accommodation” for the employer to be responsible to engage in a dialogue with an employee.
There is some very helpful guidance available on this developing subject. Check out these resources:
- COVID-19 Long Haulers and the Americans with Disabilities Act (askjan.org)
- AT3 Issue Brief: Assistive Technology and Long COVID | ACL Administration for Community Living
- Federal Laws Protect You Against Employment Discrimination During the COVID-19 Pandemic | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)
- What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)
- Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)