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4 Million “Long-Haulers” Forced to Leave Their Jobs Post-COVID

4 Million “Long-Haulers” Forced to Leave Their Jobs Post-COVID

Sadly, many U.S. workers have been forced to reduce their work hours or leave the workforce entirely post-COVID as the result of long COVID. Also known as post-COVID condition, long COVID symptoms can arise as early as 4 weeks after a person contracts the SARS-CoV-2 virus—and, for many Americans, the symptoms never go away.

Many people affected by long COVID—patients commonly referred to as “long-haulers”—experience lingering or new symptoms that substantially impact their day-to-day activities. For many Americans, this includes their jobs. According to a recent study conducted by the Brookings Institution, approximately 4 million full-time equivalent U.S. workers are now out of a job as a result of long COVID—approximately 2.4% of the U.S. working population.

Long COVID Creates Staffing Shortages Nationwide

It’s no secret that our nation’s economy is in dire straits—an understandable circumstance, considering our country is only two years into navigating the aftermath of a shocking global pandemic. Like it or not, one of the key issues we’ll be forced to face sooner or later is the devastation caused by long COVID.

Today, 25 million Americans are estimated to have post-COVID condition, causing 80% of those affected to face significant impairments in their day-to-day lives. As 4 million Americans (and counting) are forced to drop from our nation’s workforce, it’s no wonder that our economic wellbeing has dipped as staffing shortages persist far and wide. For many U.S. residents, the future they had hoped for is no longer a possibility after contracting COVID-19.

For some, leaving their job isn’t an option, but a necessity. Other Americans had no choice in the matter, as many U.S. workers have been laid off as a result of subpar performances or allegedly insufficient productivity—the result of long COVID, not laziness or ineptitude.

U.S. Workers Speak Up About Long COVID & Discrimination

NPR took some time to conduct interviews with long-haulers who are currently out of a job. One of those Americans was Georgia Linders, who explained that after contracting COVID-19, she still experiences a racing heartbeat, chronic fatigue, and fever that makes her brain “feel like goo.”

After being placed on probation in her workplace 2 years after getting COVID, Georgia was eventually fired for not being able to keep up with her tasks in the same way she had before getting sick, despite her stellar performance before contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. She filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. government, only to have it dismissed. Georgia called the entire experience “demoralizing.”

Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, a professor of rehabilitation medicine, supports and validates stories like Georgia’s. “If someone has to go back 100% when they start feeling a little better,” Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez explains, “they are going to crash and burn fast.”

In some instances, U.S. workers may be forced to leave their field entirely if they can no longer perform the basic demands of the job. This was the case for firefighter Karyn Bishof, a new recruit who contracted COVID-19 at a training.

With long COVID, Karyn can no longer fight fires—which happened to be her lifelong dream job. Thanks to brain fog, lightheadedness, fatigue, and other debilitating long COVID symptoms, "[running] into a burning building" is no longer a possibility for her. Consequently, Karyn has been left with a new and uncertain future she couldn't have possibly foreseen. Sadly, she is one of many U.S. workers who have been forced to leave their industry of choice as a result of long COVID.

American Companies Must Face the Facts: “We Don’t Know”

U.S. employers must acknowledge that long COVID cannot be compared to a workplace injury or any other condition with an expected expiration date. After all, the SARS-CoV-2 virus struck the world a mere two years prior—and in the same way that we have limited knowledge about the coronavirus, we have even less knowledge about the long-term effects and impacts of long COVID.

Dr. Verduzco-Gutierrez confesses to feeling “stumped” by disability applications, particularly regarding questions that ask how long an individual anticipates their condition to persist. “[Long COVID] is a new condition,” she stresses. “We don’t know.”

The U.S. Department of Labor is urging employers to think before making any rash decisions regarding any of the 4 million U.S. workers who are experiencing the debilitating effects of long COVID. When it comes to post-COVID condition, it’s normal for symptoms to come and go. It’s also normal for new symptoms to arise, making long COVID difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to predict.

In their long COVID guide, the Labor Department urges companies to reasonably accommodate workers who are struggling to “return to normal” as a result of long COVID—with or without a formal long COVID diagnosis.

The guide advises employers, “Rather than determining whether an employee has a disability [due to long COVID], your focus should be on the employee’s limitations and whether there are effective accommodations that would enable the employee to perform essential job functions.”

Unfortunately, regardless of whether their heart is in the right place, some employers lack the necessary resources or funds to provide the accommodations that "long-hauler" employers desperately need. Small businesses in particular may struggle to keep their heads above water if one employee isn't performing up to par.

Challenges of Long COVID as a Disability

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, U.S. employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations for workers who suffer from a disability, assuming that 1) the worker discloses the disability and 2) such accommodations do not pose an undue burden on the company. For those suffering from long COVID, an example of reasonable accommodations could include:

  • Requesting a lighter workload
  • Requesting a new role in a different department
  • An altered timeline for disciplinary action (such as probation)
  • Flexibility in location (such as working remotely when needed)
  • Extended leave

The Biden administration has taken steps to protect U.S. workers suffering from long COVID. Under the law, long COVID is considered a disability if:

  1. It poses a significant mental or physical impairment that substantially limits at least 1 major life activity
  2. Symptoms persist for at least 1 year

Given the absence of an official diagnostic test for long COVID, you can imagine how complex it can be for long-haulers to successfully receive the medical care and resources they need. In addition, the duration and severity of long COVID symptoms vary drastically from person to person, making it all the more challenging to identify and accommodate employees suffering from long COVID.

It can be difficult to predict how long symptoms will last, let alone when a worker will get back to feeling 100%—assuming it happens at all. For many, qualifying for Social Security benefits is a challenge for various reasons, from stigma and skepticism to the mere effort of navigating a time-consuming bureaucratic process while managing debilitating symptoms that can worsen with physical and mental effort.

Workers and advocates for Americans with disabilities are hopeful that our nation will witness a shift in disability policy in the next few years as more information and awareness comes to light regarding long COVID. Such shifts have indeed happened in the past, such as when soldiers returned home from the war in Iran or Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries.

Above all, it’s crucial that our nation unite in this difficult and transformative time in history, and do what we can to strengthen our economy, improve public health, and support our fellow Americans as we continue to navigate a post-COVID world.

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