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Georgia Linders got sick with COVID in the spring of 2020 and never recovered. Her ongoing battle with long COVID has prevented her from working. She spends her days advocating for COVID longhaulers like herself and painting, one of the few activities that doesn’t wear her out.
More than two years after Georgia Linders first got sick with COVID, her heart still races at random times. She’s often exhausted. She can’t digest certain foods. Most days, she runs a fever, and when her temperature gets up past a certain point, her brain feels like goo, she says. These are commonly reported symptoms of long COVID. Linders really noticed problems with her brain when she returned to work in the spring and summer of 2020. Her job required her to be on phone calls all day, coordinating with health clinics that service the military. It was a lot of multitasking, something she excelled at before COVID.
After COVID, the brain fog and fatigue slowed her down immensely. In the fall of 2020, she was put on probation. After 30 days, she thought her performance had improved. She’d certainly felt busy. “But my supervisor brought up my productivity, which was like a quarter of what my coworkers were doing,” she says. It was demoralizing. Her symptoms worsened. She was given another 90-day probation, but she decided to take medical leave. 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 aren’t working because of long COVID As the number of people with post-COVID symptoms soars, researchers and the government are trying to get a handle on how big an impact long COVID is having on the U.S. workforce. It’s a pressing question, given the fragile state of the economy. For more than a year, employers have faced staffing problems, with jobs going unfilled month after month.
Now, millions of people may be sidelined from their jobs due to long COVID. Katie Bach, a senior fellow with 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 says is a conservative estimate: 4 million full-time equivalent workers out of work because of long COVID. “That is just a shocking number,” says Bach. “That’s 2.4% of the U.S. working population.” 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 on the job, issuing guidance that makes clear that long COVID can be a disability and relevant laws would apply. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, employers must offer accommodations to workers with disabilities unless doing so presents an undue burden.
Linders now she thinks back to what she should have asked for after her return to work. She was already working from home due to the pandemic, but perhaps she could have been given a lighter workload. Maybe her supervisor could have held off on disciplinary action.
“Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten as sick as I got, because I wouldn’t have been pushing myself to do the things that I knew couldn’t do, but I kept trying and trying,” she says. Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, 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 100% when they start feeling a little bit better, they are going to crash and burn fast,” she says. Figuring out accommodations for long COVID can be complicated The problem with coming up with accommodations for long COVID is that there are so many unknowns. The duration and severity of symptoms varies wildly from person to person. Gutierrez finds herself stumped by questions on disability forms that ask how long an individual might be out or how long their illness may last. “This is a new condition,” she says. “We don’t know.” Accommodations in the workplace might include flexibility in where someone works, extended leave, or a new role in a different department. The goal is to get workers on a path back, says Roberta Etcheverry, CEO of Diversifi …