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Are Employers ready for the COVID-19 Long Haulers?

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Are Employers ready for the COVID-19 Long Haulers?

July 27, 2021

In the coming months, employers are planning for the safe return of their workforce to the office. In doing so, they are navigating new norms around flexibility, safety, and “essential” work. Through all of this lurks a persistent and considerable challenge for employers: how to accommodate the survivors of COVID-19 who have lasting or permanent symptoms.

On July 26, the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), President Biden announced that long-term symptoms of COVID-19 could be considered a disability under federal civil rights laws, making this conversation imperative. An estimated 10% of survivors will experience lasting healthcare challenges from contracting COVID-19, potentially bringing millions of Americans into the disability community as they experience breathing problems, brain fog, chronic pain and fatigue.

As the President & CEO of a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities, I encourage other employers to be proactive as they encounter COVID-19 long haulers returning to the workplace. At Melwood, we’ve spent the past 55 years supporting, advocating, and hiring people with disabilities. Melwood employs more than 1,600 people each year, nearly 1,000 of whom are people with disabilities, and provides job training, employment services, healing retreats for injured veterans, and more for more than 2,500 people with disabilities in our community. Melwood’s experience can be helpful to embrace the dynamic of employees with disabilities in the workforce and the accommodations they need to succeed as we reopen the economy and return to work.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects an employee with an actual or perceived disability, which the ADA defines as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Under the ADA, there is not a comprehensive list of impairments covered as a disability. In terms of those affected by COVID-19, individualized assessments will be required according to the guidance issued by the administration, to determine whether a worker’s long-term symptoms substantially limit a major life activity.

One of the most common symptoms COVID-19 long haulers experience is brain fog, even in patients who were never hospitalized to recover. They report being unusually confused, forgetful, or unable to concentrate for even short periods of time – residual effects that may qualify as a disability under the ADA. If that is the case, employers are required to make reasonable workplace accommodations that allow the employee to perform his or her job despite the long-haul symptoms. Additional time to complete tasks, schedule modifications, adjustments, or modifications to training materials, or focus tools and resources may all be helpful in accommodating people with disabilities related to COVID-19.

Historically, one of the most common accommodations requested by people with disabilities has been requesting the option to telework. It was often rejected because employers insisted that positions needed to be on-site. However, in one of the few silver linings to the pandemic, employers have seen how to operationalize teleworking policies and accommodations in ways that have resulted in greater productivity and higher morale on a broad scale. What was impossible is now a workplace norm and many employers are incorporating a flexible workplace as a cornerstone of their “return to the workplace” plan. This bodes well both for people experiencing long-haul COVID symptoms, but also for the disability community at large whose true employment potential can be tapped by forward-thinking employers.

Reports by both the National Council on Disability and GAO have stressed that one of the biggest barriers to employment for people with disabilities is employers worrying that accommodations will be expensive and impede productivity, yet our shared experience over the past 18 months has shown how nimble employers – and employees – can be. The Jobs Accommodation Network reports that the cost of nearly 60% of accommodations is minimal, and those that require an investment usually only cost around $500. As with many shifts employers made in response to COVID-19, the pivot to greater inclusivity may be far less expensive than it used to appear.

How easy it is now to imagine a world with greater accommodations for our workforce, building towards greater inclusion and more independence for people with disabilities. It’s fitting that having just celebrated the 31st anniversary of the ADA, employers must recommit themselves to providing those with lasting COVID-19 symptoms the support and reasonable accommodations they need and deserve. At Melwood, we strive to make work more accessible for all. In the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the perseverance of people with disabilities across the country, let us honor that legacy by advancing inclusion and opportunity for our workforce, including those affected by COVID-19’s long term effects.

Larysa Kautz is President & CEO of Melwood, one of the largest employers of people with disabilities in the country. For more information, please visit www.Melwood.org.

About Melwood

Melwood is one of the largest employers of people with disabilities in the country, employing more than 1,600 workers – nearly 1,000 of whom are people with disabilities. Melwood offers job placement, job training, life skills for independence, and support services to more than 2,500 people each year in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Melwood also has an inclusive summer camp program for children and provides employment and support services to veterans and active duty military members who have experienced service-related trauma or injury. For more information, visit www.Melwood.org.

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