Omicron likely added to the number of people with disabling long Covid, and HR has an opportunity to be proactive in creating a welcoming environment for them.

New analysis from the Center for American Progress (CAP) think tank estimates that there are as many as half a million new disabled people in the labor force, in part as a result of the chronic symptoms of what has come to be known as long Covid, the umbrella term for Covid symptoms that persist for more than four weeks after being infected.

The CAP report came two months after the EEOC updated its guidance for employers on when long Covid is considered a disability. And with more companies reopening offices this month, disability advocates and some legal experts say HR teams should be prepared to respond to accommodation requests from employees who currently have, or may develop, disabling long Covid.

Workplace adaptation

The EEOC’s December guidance came in the middle of the nation’s omicron variant wave, the full effects of which health experts say they won’t fully understand for months. The guidance states that the ADA’s three-part definition of disability applies to Covid the same way it does to any other disability; therefore employers are required by law to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabling long Covid.

Accommodation awareness

The CAP report says that perceived stigma may be a barrier to people requesting accommodations for their long Covid, but that HR departments must adapt to these newly (and sometimes temporarily) disabled workers. Employees may also not fully understand that they have reasonable accommodation rights. For employers looking for ways to accommodate employees with disabling long Covid, the Job Accommodation Network, a free resource providing guidance on workplace accommodations, provides a comprehensive list of potential accommodations based on symptoms.

Becky Kekula, director of the Disability Equality Index at DisabilityIN, an organization driving disability inclusion in business, recommends that HR departments create a safe place, especially for those who don’t yet identify as disabled but may need accommodations.

“What I always encourage is having multiple touch points (with HR) and this starts even when someone’s applying for a job,” Kekula said. “Put it out there everywhere possible. ‘If you’re in need of an accommodation, please let us know, email or call.’”

Kekula also views the rise of remote work as one silver lining in the pandemic, because “it allowed people the opportunity to work from home and it has allowed a lot more people with disabilities to participate in the workforce.”

Flex works

Guthe believes “remote-work options are the only way people are going to be able to continue to work with long Covid.” He stressed that symptoms of long Covid can vary; his wife had GI symptoms and her feet were in constant pain, so driving to an office wouldn’t have been feasible.

“[The] first thing [business leaders] need to understand is that people with long Covid want nothing more than to resume their old lives,” Guthe said. “They unfortunately now have a series of symptoms that makes returning to their old lives extremely challenging.”

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