More than two years after Georgia Linders first fell ill with COVID, her heart is still beating at random times.
She is often exhausted. She cannot digest certain foods.
Most of the time, she has a fever, and when her temperature goes above a certain point, her brain feels sticky, she says.
These are commonly reported symptoms of long COVID.
Linders really noticed issues with her brain when she returned to work in the spring and summer of 2020. Her job required her to make phone calls all day, coordinating with health clinics that serve the army. It was a lot of multitasking, something she excelled at before COVID.
After COVID, brain fog and fatigue slowed her down tremendously. In the fall of 2020, she was placed on probation. After 30 days, she thought her performance had improved. She had certainly felt busy.
“But my supervisor increased my productivity, which was about a quarter of what my colleagues were doing,” she says.
It was demoralizing. His symptoms worsened. She was given another 90 days probation, but decided to take sick leave. On June 2, 2021, Linders was fired.
She filed a discrimination complaint with the government, but it was dismissed. She could have sued but was not making enough money to hire a lawyer.
Survey data suggests millions out of work due to long COVID
As the number of people with post-COVID symptoms soars, researchers and the government are trying to understand the full extent of COVID’s impact on the American workforce. This is an urgent question, given the fragility of the economy. For more than a year, employers have been grappling with staffing issues, with vacancies month after month.
Now millions of people may be sidelined from their jobs due to the long duration of COVID. Katie Bach, senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, relied on survey data from the Census Bureau, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and The Lancet to arrive at what she says is a conservative estimate: 4 million full-time equivalent workers out of work due to long COVID.
“It’s just a shocking number,” Bach says. “That’s 2.4% of the American labor force.”
Long COVID may be a disability under federal law
The Biden administration has already taken steps to try to protect workers and keep them on the job, issue directives this makes it clear that the long COVID can be a liability and the relevant laws would apply. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, employers must provide accommodations to workers with disabilities unless it would be an undue burden.
Linders now thinks back to what she should have asked after returning to work. She was already working from home due to the pandemic, but perhaps she could have benefited from a lighter workload. Perhaps his supervisor could have delayed disciplinary action.
“Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten as sick as I did, because I wouldn’t have pushed myself to do the things I knew I couldn’t do, but I kept trying and trying. try,” she said.
Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, has seen COVID play out similarly in other patients.
“If someone has to go back to 100% when they start to feel a little bit better, they’re going to crumble and burn quickly,” she says.
Finding accommodations for long COVID can be complicated
The problem with providing accommodations for a long duration of COVID is that there are so many unknowns. The duration and severity of symptoms vary greatly from person to person.
Gutierrez finds himself perplexed by questions on disability forms that ask how long a person can be away or how long their illness can last.
“It’s a new condition,” she said. “We do not know.”
Workplace accommodations can include flexibility in a person’s workplace, extended leave, or a new role in another department. The goal is to get workers back on track, says Roberta Etcheverry, CEO of Diversified Management Group, a disability management consultancy.
But with a long COVID, it’s hard to gauge whether an employee is actually on their way home.
“It’s not a sprain or a strain where someone twists their ankle and we know in x months it will be there,” she says. “It’s not – someone was helping move a patient, and he hurt his back, and he can’t do that kind of work anymore. He has to do something else.”
With a long COVID, symptoms come and go, and new symptoms may appear.
The Labor Department is urging employers not to rule out accommodations for employees who do not receive a lengthy official COVID diagnosis.
“Rather than determining whether an employee has a disability, you should focus on the employee’s limitations and whether there are effective accommodations that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of their job,” says the Department of Labor in its long COVID guide for employers.
Accommodations may be harder to find in some jobs
Yet, not all employers can afford to provide the type of accommodation an employee may need given their symptoms.
Bilal Qizilbash believes he would have been fired long ago had he not been the boss of his own company.
“Most of my team have no idea that I work most of the time from my bed,” says Qizilbash, a COVID long hauler who suffers from chronic pain that he compares to wasp stings.
As the CEO of a small company that makes health supplements, Qizilbash says he tries to be compassionate and at the same time ruthlessly efficient. Having an employee whose productivity is severely compromised could end up having a negative impact on the entire company, he says.
In other professions, it can be difficult to find accommodations that work, no matter how generous.
In South Florida, Karyn Bishof was a new recruit to the Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue Team in 2020 when she contracted COVID, likely during training, she says. She comes from a family of firefighters, and it was her lifelong dream to follow in her footsteps. But for a long time now, COVID has left him with deep brain fog, fatigue, dizziness and a host of other symptoms incompatible with firefighting.
“I couldn’t run through a burning building if I couldn’t regulate my temperature,” she says. “If I can’t control my hypertension, I can’t lift a patient or I’ll pass out.”
Bishof was fired for failing to meet performance-related probation standards and has since become a COVID long haul advocate.
The Department of Labor is looking for ideas on how to keep workers employed
Taryn Williams, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy, wants to hear from workers and employers. Until mid-August, the Department of Labor is organizing a online chatasking for input on policies that can help address workplace challenges resulting from long COVID.
“We want to be responsive,” Williams says. “We are thinking about how we can support these workers in a period of transformation in their lives.”
She says the government has encountered situations in the past where there was a sudden increase in the number of people needing accommodations at work. A significant number of military personnel have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries, for example. Williams says these times have led to changes in disability policy in the United States
From his home in La Crosse, Wis., Linders contributed a number of comments to the Department of Labor’s online dialogue. Like Bishof, she also spends a lot of time helping other COVID long haulers navigate what she’s been through, including qualifying for Social Security disability insurance.
Her advocacy helps her feel like she’s contributing something to society, even if it’s not the life she wanted.
“I don’t want to be disabled. I don’t want to take government money,” she says. “I’m only 45. I was going to work at least another 20 years.”