ADA Protections and Long-Haul COVID: What You Should Know

Disability Rights, Family, Medical, and Other Leave Discrimination, In the News
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The coronavirus has been around for a while and it seems like it’ll be around for a little while longer. Luckily, we have some effective vaccines. This means more people can survive a coronavirus infection and reduce the risk of it spreading. But the more people that survive the coronavirus, the more likely we’ll have “long-haulers.”

Suffering from long-haul COVID can mean that some people have trouble returning to their normal lives, even if they no longer have the coronavirus. This includes being able to return to their prior job or completing their previous work duties.

If you suffer from long-term effects of an earlier coronavirus infection that are keeping you from working the way you used to, you may have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). In this blog post, we’ll discuss what those rights are and how to make use of them at work. But before we do, let’s get a better understanding of long-haul COVID.

What Is Long COVID?

Sometimes referred to as long-haul COVID, chronic COVID, post COVID conditions or post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines long COVID as health problems that last four or weeks after first getting infected with the coronavirus.

These problems can include a continuation of symptoms from an active infection. But they may also result in symptoms that did not exist while infected. Common symptoms of long COVID include one or more of the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Muscle and/or joint pain
  • Headaches
  • Trouble concentrating, thinking and/or remembering
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Coughing

What Causes Long-Haul COVID?

No one currently knows for sure, but there are some theories to explain it.

A few experts think that it’s the result of a strong immune response that’s still trying to “fight” the infection even though there’s no coronavirus left to fight. There’s also the idea that long COVID is due to a small amount of the coronavirus still being in the body. Finally, there’s the theory that the symptoms from long COVID are the result of the damage the coronavirus did to the human body.

How Long Does Long COVID Last?

It varies for each person. Some people will fully recover in just a few months. Others may continue suffering the symptoms of long COVID even if their infection took place 12 months ago.

Who Can Become a Coronavirus Long-Hauler?

Anyone who’s been infected with the coronavirus. This includes those having only minor symptoms when infected or no symptoms at all. It’s believed that between 10% and 30% of those infected with the coronavirus will suffer from long COVID.

Is Long COVID Recognized by the ADA?

Yes, as long as a person’s long COVID symptoms meet the ADA’s definition of a disability. Almost any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity will qualify as a disability under the ADA. So if you have a medical issue that affects either your physical body or your mind, it would be eligible for ADA protections.

The impairment also needs to be severe enough substantially limit a major life activity. This sounds like a high standard, but it’s not as difficult to meet as you might think. If you have trouble doing any of the following because of your disability, then you likely meet this standard:

  • Lifting
  • Communicating
  • Thinking
  • Reading
  • Seeing
  • Sleeping
  • Talking
  • Hearing
  • Bathing
  • Dressing
  • Eating
  • Walking
  • Breathing
  • Standing

What Are My Rights Under the ADA?

The ADA bars discrimination based on a person’s disability or the perception that they have a disability. These protections apply in a variety of settings, including the workplace. There are two major rights that employees receive from the ADA.

First, there’s protection from disability-based discrimination. Unlawful discrimination can include almost any adverse employment action, including actions relating to:

  • Compensation (including benefits)
  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Training
  • Promotions
  • Job assignments
  • Employee discipline

Second, if someone has a disability under the ADA, they may be entitled to reasonable accommodation. This includes changing workplace rules as well as making physical modifications to the employee’s workplace.

Reasonable accommodation refers to any workplace change to accommodate the employee with the disability, as long as it doesn’t place an undue hardship on the employer. What counts as an undue hardship will depend on the resources of the employer. So courts won’t expect a small town business to provide the same type of accommodation that a multi-national corporation can.

How Should I Ask for a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA?

The first thing you want to do is see if your employer has a special process for asking for a reasonable accommodation. When you ask for a reasonable accommodation, keep a few things in mind.

First, your employer is not legally required to lower its job requirements or standards to accommodate you. So if your employer needs you to be able to lift 75 pounds for the warehouse position you want, but long COVID makes that impossible for you, then your employer won’t have to reduce this weight requirement to accommodate you.

However, if you’re a cashier that normally stands to do your job, but long COVID means you now need to sit down at work, then asking for a chair will likely qualify as a reasonable accommodation.

Second, when you ask for a reasonable accommodation, you don’t need to mention the ADA or use the term, “reasonable accommodation.” But in your request, you will need to make it clear that you have a medical condition that requires you to have a workplace modification to continue doing your job. It will also help to mention the specific accommodation you need and how it will help you.

Third, your employer has the discretion to decide what accommodation it provides you. While they should give special consideration to the accommodation you request, they can legally provide something else that can still accomplish the same goals, but is easier or cheaper to implement.

Fourth, your employer has the right to ask for additional information to confirm your right to an accommodation and what accommodation to provide. This might mean you need to provide a doctor’s note or complete a medical exam. Whatever information you provide must be kept confidential by your employer.

Don’t be surprised if it takes a little bit of back-and-forth between you and your employer to get the accommodation. This doesn’t mean they can drag their feet, but it does mean they can take reasonable steps to confirm that your request is legitimate and figure out how to provide you with an accommodation.

Summing It Up

If covered by the ADA, an individual with long COVID may have the right to special workplace accommodations. These are to help them deal with the symptoms while completing their regular job duties. In many cases, the employee will need to proactively ask for the accommodation.

Making this request will sometimes result in the employer going back to the employee to ask for additional information to verify the disability and/or help the employer decide what accommodation to provide.