When COVID-19 arrived in the United States, it took everyone by surprise. Our national and individual responses to the virus have had to change over time as we’ve learned more about its long-term impacts to individual health and economic stability.
Employers are still trying to navigate this tricky situation, even with the widespread availability of vaccines. Some workers who contract the virus continue to suffer debilitating symptoms months later; a phenomenon often referred to as “long COVID.”
Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released guidance for employers regarding their obligations to employees who request accommodations related to the initial infection or lingering symptoms. These guidelines clarify obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.
Symptoms can continue for months after infection
While most people who contract COVID have mild to moderate symptoms and fully recover within a matter of weeks, this obviously isn’t the case for everyone. According to one study, about 5 percent of people with COVID suffer severe symptoms.
Among those who suffer severe symptoms and survive the virus, some 76 percent continue to have at least one symptom six months down the road. A different study noted that about 10 percent of people who contracted COVID still had at least one symptom after three weeks.
Some of the most common “long COVID” symptoms could certainly interfere with a person’s ability to work. They include muscle weakness, fatigue and sleep issues.
What the EEOC Guidance Says
The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employee disability when employees request them, unless the accommodations would pose an “undue hardship” for the company. The new EEOC guidance is largely in line with that existing requirement.
The EEOC notes that simply having COVID-19 does not automatically mean that a worker has a qualifying disability. However, the individual symptoms caused by COVID-19 or long COVID can qualify as disabling conditions warranting an accommodation. These will need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
It is also important to note that return-to-work decisions run the risk of being discriminatory if they are not based on solid science. The EEOC warns that employers risk violating the ADA if they prevent a worker from returning when they are no longer infectious if the employer’s actions are guided by fears, myths and stereotypes about the virus or those who have it.
How should employers respond?
If your business has employees, it will be important for you to stay up to date on guidelines from the EEOC as well as state health and employment agencies. To the extent your business can afford to do so, it is a good idea to accommodate workers with long-COVID symptoms who need reasonable accommodations to allow them to work and remain productive. Making these accommodations will allow you to avoid legal challenges while also saving the time and money associated with employee turnover.
That being said, you may run into accommodation requests that would pose an undue hardship. If so, please reach out to an experienced employment law attorney for guidance on denying the request in a manner that shields the company against litigation.