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Millions of Americans have long had COVID. Many of them no longer work

Georgia Linders contracted COVID in the spring of 2020 and never recovered. Her ongoing struggle with the long COVID has prevented her from working. She spends her days advocating for long-distance COVID drivers like herself and painting, one of the few activities that doesn’t tire her. Georgia Linder

More than two years after Georgia Linders was first diagnosed with COVID, her heart is still racing at random times.

She is often exhausted. She cannot digest certain foods.

She has a fever most days, and when her temperature rises above a certain point, her brain feels like goosebumps, she says.

These are commonly reported symptoms of a 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 be on the phone all day and coordinate with health clinics that serve the military. It was a lot of multitasking, something she excelled at before COVID.

Post COVID, the brain fog and fatigue slowed them down immensely. She was placed on probation in the fall of 2020. After 30 days, she thought her performance had improved. She must have been feeling busy.

“But my manager increased my productivity, which was about a quarter of what my co-workers did,” she says.

It was demoralizing. Her symptoms worsened. She was given another 90-day trial period, but chose to take a leave of absence for medical reasons. On June 2, 2021, Linders was terminated.

She filed a discrimination complaint with the government, but it was dismissed. She could have sued, but wasn’t making enough money to hire a lawyer.

Survey data suggests millions of people are off work due to long COVID

As the number of people with post-COVID symptoms surges, researchers and the government are scrambling to understand just how severe the impact of COVID is on the US workforce. In view of the fragile economic situation, this is an urgent question. For more than a year, employers have struggled with staffing issues as vacancies remain unfilled month after month.

Now, millions of people could be locked out of their jobs due to long-term COVID. Katie Bach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, drew on survey data from the Census Bureau, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the Lancet to come up with what she thinks is a conservative estimate: 4 million full-time equivalents out of work because of long COVID.

“That’s just a frightening number,” says Bach. “That’s 2.4% of the US workforce.”

Long COVID can be a disability under federal law

The Biden administration has already taken some steps to try to protect workers and keep them in the workplace, issuing guidance making it clear that long COVID can be a disability and appropriate laws would apply. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to accommodate workers with disabilities unless it creates an unreasonable burden.

Linders is now thinking back to what she should have asked for when she got back to work. She was already working from home due to the pandemic, but perhaps she could have been given a lighter workload. Perhaps her manager could have withheld disciplinary action.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so sick because I didn’t push myself to do the things I knew I couldn’t do, but I kept trying,” she says.

dr Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, has seen COVID play out in similar ways in other patients.

“If someone has to go back to 100% when they’re feeling a little better, they’re going to crash and burn quickly,” she says.

Finding long COVID shelters can be complicated

The problem with finding shelter for long COVID is that there are so many unknowns. The duration and severity of symptoms varies greatly from person to person.

Gutierrez finds himself at a loss with questions on disability forms that ask how long a person might be absent or how long their illness might last.

“This is a new condition,” she says. “We do not know it.”

Workplace adjustments may include flexibility in work location, extended vacation time, or a new role in a different department. The goal is to get workers back on track, says Roberta Etcheverry, CEO of Diversified Management Group, a disability management consultancy.

But with long COVID, it’s difficult to measure whether an employee is actually on the way back.

“This isn’t a sprain or a strain where someone twists an ankle and we know it’s going to be at that point in x months,” she says. “It’s not – someone helped move a patient and they hurt their back and they can’t do that kind of work anymore. You have to do something else.”

With a long COVID, symptoms come and go, and new symptoms can appear.

The Department of Labor is urging employers not to rule out housing for employees who do not receive an official long-term 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 essential work functions,” the Labor Department says in its lengthy COVID guide for employer.

In some professions it can be more difficult to find accommodation

However, not all employers have the resources to provide a worker with the type of housing that their symptoms may require.

Bilal Qizilbash believes he would have been fired long ago if he hadn’t been the head of his own company.

“The majority of my team has no idea that I work from my bed most of the time,” says Qizilbash, a long-distance COVID driver who suffers from chronic pain he likens to wasp stings.

As the CEO of a small company that manufactures nutritional supplements, Qizilbash tries to be compassionate while being ruthlessly efficient. Having one employee whose productivity is severely impacted could negatively impact the entire organization, he says.

In other professions, finding accommodation that works, no matter how lavish, can be difficult.

In South Florida, Karyn Bishof was a new recruit to the Palm Beach Gardens firefighting team in 2020 when she likely contracted COVID while attending training, she says. Coming from a family of firefighters, it was her lifelong dream to follow suit. But COVID has long left them with pervasive brain fog, fatigue, lightheadedness and a host of other symptoms incompatible with firefighting.

“I couldn’t walk into a burning building if I couldn’t regulate my temperature,” she says. “If I can’t control high blood pressure, I can’t lift a patient or I’ll pass out.”

Bishof was fired from her job for failing to meet performance-related probation standards and has been an advocate for long-distance COVID drivers ever since.

The Department of Labor is collecting ideas on how workers can stay employed

Taryn Williams, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy, wants to hear from workers and employers. Through mid-August, the Department of Labor is holding an online dialogue asking for input on policies that can help with workplace challenges arising from the long COVID.

“We want to be responsive,” says Williams. “We are considering how we can support these workers at a time of upheaval in their lives.”

She says the government has encountered situations in the past where the number of people in need of workplace accommodation suddenly increased. For example, a significant number of soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries. Williams says such times have led to changes in disability policy in the US

From her home in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Linders has contributed a series of comments to the Department of Labor’s online dialogue. Like Bishof, she also spends a lot of time helping other long-distance COVID drivers cope with what she’s been through, including qualifying for Social Security disability insurance.

Her advocacy makes her feel like she’s contributing to society, even if it’s not the life she wanted.

“I don’t want to be disabled. I don’t want to take money from the government,” she says. “I’m only 45. I wanted to work for at least 20 more years.”

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