How to Help Employees With Long COVID

October 24, 2022 As the leading disability insurance attorney in the United States, Frank Darras has seen firsthand the long-term impact that COVID has had on employees and the challenges they face, not only in managing the illness itself, but also in the workplace.

Through recommendations coming in from across the country, Darras says he has a real-time view of the pandemic and the tremendous obstacles employees are facing long COVID try to explain and prove their condition.

“It is terrifying to have an illness and a problem for which there is no cure,” said Darras, founding partner of the law firm DarrasLaw in Ontario, California. “And having your job and your family’s financial future at stake … is awful for the employee.”

Experts are already predicting that the economic fallout and domino effect of Long could be COVID in trillions of dollars.

“It’s a very significant fraction of the total workforce…in a tight job market environment like the one we’re experiencing, it’s a really important factor,” says Matt Craven, MD, partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and author of an upcoming report, which estimates that acute and prolonged COVID will cost the US economy one billion productive days in 2022.

In the meantime, much is still unclear about the long COVID. The CDC describes it as “a wide range of new, recurring, or ongoing health problems” that appear at least 4 weeks after infection. in the a recent major study In 100,000 people in Scotland, one in 20 COVID patients said they had “not recovered at all” more than half a year after they started being infected, while around 40% said they had “only partially recovered”.

“Long COVID is a term we use a lot, but it really isn’t well defined because different people are affected by COVID in very different ways,” said Cheryl Bates-Harris, Senior Advocacy Specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.

Committed and accommodating employees

Employees with long COVID generally fall into two categories: those with debilitating, long-term symptoms that prevent them from working overall, and those with milder to moderate symptoms that allow them to stay productive with the right workplace precautions.

Employees may not realize they can ask for housing, experts say, while inexperienced employers may not know how to help or what to do with an employee who may suddenly be working at 50% occupancy.

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“In a situation where many industries are currently experiencing labor shortages, maintaining the long-term employer-employee relationship is more important than ever,” said Craven, who leads McKinsey’s public health response to COVID-19. “What flexibility can you offer so that you don’t permanently lose an employee who could be a great asset to you in the long term?”

For workers with mild to moderate long-term COVID symptoms, employers should provide a safe and supportive environment to openly discuss how they can help, advocates say. It is also important to be educated about long COVID.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are expected to make “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities, but advocates encourage employers to set a positive example by having these conversations and by being responsive to the needs of their employees, regardless of theirs Status under the Disability Act.

“You would hate to throw away years of work experience and years of education that went into that person just because they can’t do some of their job or now have a health condition,” says Bates-Harris.

If an employee cannot walk long distances because they get winded or tire easily, employers can offer telecommuting as an option where possible, allowing an employee to work from home, experts suggest. You can ensure that the employee at home is equipped with the devices and tools they need to do their jobs well.

If an employee’s job does not allow home office, an employer can reduce physical exertion, ensure sufficient or additional rest breaks or give them more time, for example to use inhalers and nebulizers to relieve shortness of breath. They can also provide personal mobility devices, like electric scooters, to help an employee get around without fatigue, Bates-Harris says.

Those who suffer from brain fog may prefer a quieter workspace. There are also apps that can help, including ones that can help employees stay on top of tasks and organized. Employers can also set a shorter working day or a more flexible work schedule while maintaining employees’ full-time status.

“I don’t care if my people come in at 4 a.m. and work until 10 a.m.,” says Darras. “Whatever kind of flexible schedule works for them, I want to make sure I have flexibility when it comes to making my space accessible.”

A collaborative work environment and the use of shared tools and documents can help reduce disruption when an employee is ill or absent. Recorded Zoom meetings can also help employees stay informed and connected. An employee may request other responsibilities and duties that are more appropriate to their medical condition.

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As an employer himself, Darras has tried to make these arrangements, saying it is a chance for employers to figure out how to keep employees happy.

A legal right to vacation

Ultimately, long COVID requires more flexibility from employers, experts say. If a worker is exhausted from an intense week, they may need to take time off to recover or go to medical appointments. Bates noted that one of the biggest complaints her organization receives are calls about time off and attendance.

Although every case is different, in the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act provide many workers with a number of protected rights, including unpaid sick leave. Those who work for a company with 50 or more employees or for a government or public agency for at least 1,250 hours over the course of 12 months are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for family and medical reasons.

The Holiday Act protects an employee from being fired for extended leave and requires employers to continue their group health insurance benefits during this period of absence.

If people have long-lasting COVID symptoms severe enough to prevent them from working at all, they may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, advocates say. However, they warn that the qualification process may not be quick or easy and is compounded by the fact that many with long COVID are unable to work due to extreme fatigue and brain fog, making the physical process of applying even more daunting.

Reassessment of workplace policies

With many pandemic-related costs being shifted back from government to individuals and the private sector, employers must make decisions about what types of workplace benefits and health insurance to offer, says Pooja Kumar, MD, a senior partner at McKinsey, who leads the firm’s work on the public health in the US.

“What do their performance structures look like? How well do they fit with the known effects of Long COVID?” She says, adding that it’s not just about benefits and shelters. “How do you actually motivate a workforce when people function 80% for physiological reasons?”

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According to Darras, employers should also have a COVID-19 safety plan in place and ensure the company’s short- and long-term disability insurance benefits have no restrictions on self-reported conditions — symptoms like pain and chronic fatigue that are difficult to verify medically, but can be resolved with long tests COVID patients are common. He has done this at his own company and advises employers to seek advice from a regional office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration if necessary.

Part-time workers shouldn’t be forgotten either, supporters say. Employers can explore what they can do to help part-time workers qualify for disability insurance.

While many of these shelters can cost money, proponents emphasize the long-term benefits.

“The institutional knowledge and experience that the current employees have far outweighs anything they will gain from hiring a new person off the street and training,” says Bates-Harris. “Employers who have experience hiring people with disabilities learned long ago that the cost of housing an employee far outweighs the cost of hiring new employees.”

With less than 3 years of information on COVID-19, Craven also emphasizes the importance of being agile. “Create policies now, but review them over time based on new information, how people use them, how they work for employees, how they work for employers,” he says.

“Version one doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Resources for Employers

Employers can also turn to the Job Accommodation Network, funded by the US Department of Labor. It is a leading source for free, expert and confidential advice on issues such as workplace adjustments and employment for people with disabilities.

It’s a resource that many employers aren’t aware of, Bates-Harris says, and is “designed to keep people in the workplace and enable employers to retain long-term employees.”

Employers can also contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that deals with discrimination in the workplace, or the Department of Labor’s website to learn more about their legal obligations.

“Honestly, as an employer, I’m responsible for that [my employees]so I looked at it and said, “It’s just an investment in my people,” says Darras, who has a large percentage of his employees who have been with the company for more than 20 years.

“I want people to retire with me. … I want them to be healthy and thriving.”

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