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Long COVID is a new disability affecting millions of workers—and a ‘moment of essential innovation’ for employers, one lawyer contends

0 2 years ago

Then again, it’s not every day that a new pathogen bursts onto the scene, killing millions.

For most, there is life after COVID. But for millions of survivors, that life may include disability—an unfamiliar world for them and their employers.

Just how Long COVID is defined depends on whom you talk to, with symptoms and timelines of onset varying. Whatever it is, it may already affect between 7 million and 23 million Americans who previously had the virus—up to 7% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The silver lining, says University of Pennsylvania law professor Jasmine Harris, is that the nascent condition presents employers with a “moment of essential innovation—rethinking the workplace, both in terms of how we do business and how we come together in a work environment.”

What might be legally required accommodations for some—like ergonomic work equipment and flex time—might boost morale and productivity for all, Harris says. What’s more, the time for companies to consider such things is now—before an onslaught of litigation.

“Employers can be thinking across the workplace of what might be best practices for employees generally,” she says, “and what innovations might come out of disability accommodations they’ve seen.”

No slam-dunk diagnosis

No one medical condition—Long COVID included—is a ticket to accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Harris says.

That’s because the court’s definition of a disability differs from the medical definition one. It’s undoubtedly complicated by the fact that medical professionals are struggling to determine what Long COVID is, with many experts theorizing it’s an umbrella term for multiple conditions.

Under the ADA, a person with a disability is defined as “someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits or one or more major life activities,” Harris says: “There’s no set list of disabilities that employers, employees, or courts will go to and say, ‘These are all covered disabilities that would make a person entitled to protection under the ADA.’”

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