Long Covid is a Disability. Here’s How to Ask for Workplace Accommodations.
Coming clean on limitations posed by symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog is difficult for many.
New studies offer clues about who may be more susceptible to long Covid, a term for lingering Covid-19 symptoms. WSJ breaks down the science of long Covid and the state of treatment. Illustration: Jacob Reynolds for the Wall Street Journal.
Many people with long Covid are legally entitled to accommodations at work to help them do their jobs. Still, some are finding it hard to ask for help.
Disability can encompass any number of physical or mental impairments. Often, managers can more easily comprehend the limitations imposed by static conditions, such as the loss of a limb or hearing. Symptoms can ebb and flow over time with chronic illness, such as long Covid, Crohn’s disease or lupus, making the experience more difficult to grasp, say disabled people and employers.
Because of that ambiguity, the onus is usually on workers to make the case for support. But coming clean on the limitations posed by long Covid is difficult for many.
“It was harder than I thought it would be, even though I knew my rights,” says Mindy Jackson, who works for the State of Washington as a vocational counselor for disabled people. She has had long Covid since her original infection in 2020. “I almost felt ashamed, which really surprised me.”
Ms. Jackson now works from home almost exclusively, has reduced her hours using Family and Medical Leave Act time off, and modified travel to avoid driving. She has also adapted her home office to help her maintain focus, adjusting the lighting and putting her screens in dark mode.
She joined the Covid-19 Longhauler Advocacy Project support group early in her illness.
“I don’t know what I would have done without being able to read the stories of those that came before me and be able to connect with people,” Ms. Jackson says.
In 2021, the federal government clarified that long Covid could be considered a disabilityunder the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Long-Covid symptoms and severity can vary greatly. People with long Covid frequently experience extraordinary levels of fatigue, which can be worsened by exertion, cognitive impairment, nervous-system dysfunction, as well as vascular, respiratory and immune-system issues.
Between 7.7 million and 23 million Americans have long Covid, according to a November report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In cases where the conditions limit at least one major life activity, the necessary accommodations might be temporary or permanent, depending on each worker’s case.
“The law is set up so that it becomes a conversation,” says Jasmine E. Harris, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School.
A 2022 survey of nearly 3,800 managers found that 40% of them had employees with lasting physical or mental effects of a Covid-19 infection, and that 58% of those managers said the employees had received workplace accommodations, according to the Kessler Foundation, a nonprofit supporting people with disabilities, and the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability.
“The one thing that I think people do when they’re unsure is they wait too long [to ask], and then they really start to have performance issues,” says Felicia Nurmsen, a managing director at the National Organization on Disability, a nonprofit that seeks to increase employment opportunities for disabled people.
Ms. Nurmsen, who has long Covid herself, says she found online support groups helpful when figuring out her own accommodation needs. Such communities share ideas of what types of modifications might be useful, as well as referrals to medical professionals familiar with their condition.
Employment attorneys and other disability experts say workers should consider their individual situation when deciding whether to disclose a disability and ask for accommodations. They can make a request orally or in writing, and who they contact first is also up to them. Some people might feel more comfortable talking to their manager directly, while others might believe their HR department will better understand ADA law.
In some cases, such as when a condition isn’t readily apparent, an employer may request documentation about the disability and need for accommodation. This can come from any appropriate medical professional—not just a physician, says Linda Carter Batiste, director of services and publications at the Job Accommodation Network, or JAN, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
“Employers cannot ask for medical information unrelated to the disability at issue,” Ms. Carter Batiste adds.
Most workplace accommodations for chronically ill people involve a policy change, such as such as allowing for rest breaks or remote work, or developing a plan of action for when symptoms suddenly flare.
JAN research shows that more than half of accommodations cost employers nothing, while those requiring some expense typically cost about $500. Equipment-related accommodations can include creating an ergonomic workspace or adding antiglare screen protectors.
For those worried they were denied accommodations because of discrimination, disability lawyers say that workers can file complaints with appropriate state or local authorities, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It would be a misconception to think that accommodations are a form of preferential treatment, they add.
“That’s why I think a lot of employees are afraid,” says Nicole Buonocore Porter, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “It’s not a leg up. It’s saying, because of the manifestations of whatever my disability is, I need that accommodation just to be able to perform my job.”