In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognized that long COVID may constitute a disability under federal law, including Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title I of the ADA governs organizations with 15 or more employees, which includes most employers. The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” (42 U.S.C. Sec. 12102). If a person’s long COVID symptoms interfere with their ability to work, they may be afforded protection by the ADA. In the context of employment, the ADA guarantees equal opportunities for people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination against them. One way that the ADA guarantees equal opportunities for people with disabilities is by giving them the right to request reasonable accommodations in the workplace. These accommodations can enable a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job and they make it possible for a person with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.
An accommodation can be anything that helps the employee be as successful in carrying out the essential functions of their job as someone who is not disabled. Examples of accommodations include flexible work hours, modifications to an employee’s workstation, and providing specialized tools or technology to improve the accessibility of the workplace. Finding an accommodation that is appropriate for the circumstances often requires creative problem solving and a fair amount of compromise.
If you have long COVID and your symptoms are interfering with your ability to perform the essential functions of your job, you can request an accommodation from your employer. A request for accommodations can take many forms, but it’s often best to make the request in writing to ensure there is a record of the request.
Once an employee submits a request for a reasonable accommodation to their employer, they should engage in the interactive process with their employer to reach agreement on implementing an effective accommodation. The interactive process is a discussion between a person and their employer that gives them the opportunity to discuss the nature of their disability and how it affects their ability to perform their job functions. An effective accommodation will recognize the specific disabling symptoms an employee is experiencing, the essential functions of their job they are having difficulty fulfilling, and the solution will be tailored to the circumstances to support the employee’s success in the workplace.
The first step in the interactive process is to determine the essential job duties of the employee’s position, which will include a review of their job description. Once the essential duties are determined, the employer and employee should discuss potential solutions that can be implemented. Several ideas will come up during this process, but the best solutions are those that empower employees to work successfully alongside their peers. Some options may be available that would not be reasonable to implement. If an accommodation is not reasonable, an employer will not be required to provide it. An example of an unreasonable solution is one that would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a great resource for both employers and employees to consult with regarding reasonable accommodations. JAN provides comprehensive information about reasonable accommodations and features resources on how to address workplace challenges related to COVID-19 and long COVID. JAN has also published a list of accommodations that can be used to support employees with long COVID.