The COVID Pandemic, which began in early 2020, has deeply affected the world and the workplace. Many people infected with the virus are experiencing long-term effects from their infection, known as Long COVID or Post COVID conditions (PCC). What is the impact of Long COVID? How should employees and employers navigate this chronic illness?
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal interviews Erica Taylor, a staff attorney with the Atlanta Volunteers Lawyers Foundation, who is afflicted with Long COVID, to learn about her ongoing experience with this disease, talk about her strategies to combat the cognitive impacts, and offer recommendations to other Long COVID sufferers. Amy McAndrew, a labor and employment attorney with the MidAtlantic Employers’ Association, joins Karen and Erica to discuss the rights of employees and employers as they navigate Long COVID and other chronic illnesses.
Long COVID Resources
Terrence M. Franklin: The COVID pandemic continues to change the way we live and work. Today, we’re going to take a look at “Long COVID” and its effects on individuals, their professional lives, and workplaces in America.
Long COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the occurrence of new, returning, or ongoing health problems four or more weeks after an initial infection of the virus that causes COVID-19. According to an article published on March 2, 2022 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the estimate of people who have developed “Long COVID” could range from 7.7 to 23 million, potentially pushing an estimated 1 million people out of work. Wow!
In this video, ACTEC Fellow Karen Stockmal interviews a law colleague who is afflicted with Long COVID, Erica Taylor. She will explain her ongoing experience with this disease, talk about her strategies to combat the cognitive impacts, and offer recommendations to other Long COVID sufferers. Amy McAndrew, a labor and employment attorney with the MidAtlantic Employers’ Association, will join Karen and Erica to discuss the rights of employees and the responsibilities of employers as they navigate Long COVID and other chronic illnesses. Karen will get us started.
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal: Welcome and thank you for joining us today to talk about chronic illness in the workplace. Erica, can you tell us about how you came to be diagnosed with Long COVID?
Erica Taylor: Sure thing. And I’ll do my best to keep it brief, but like so many things going on, especially towards the beginning the pandemic, it is a complicated story. I first got sick with COVID back in June 2020. And back during that time, we were still learning a lot about COVID. And so, the first thing that happened is that I stayed acutely sick for about a month. I had a fever that would not break for about a month. And as my acute symptoms started to subside, that’s when other strange things started to happen. I continued to be really tired and fatigued. I continued to be very confused. Any time I did too much activity, I started to feel even sicker than I was.
And so, I started realizing that things were wrong. At the same time, I also started to develop a pain in my leg that I would later discover was a blood clot. And so, I started to realize things were wrong, and it was honestly around October that I spoke with my doctor. And luckily, I had a primary care physician that had been listening to what had been going on, had been hearing about people who continued to be sick even after their acute illness was over. And so, I’m not sure she actually even put Long COVID in the chart, because I think at that time, they were still calling it something like, “Post-COVID complications.”
And I actually remember the day that I was on my survivor networks and my support groups, and they started talking about, “Okay, it’s going to be called ‘Long COVID.’” So, I’m not sure if it was called Long-COVID, but it was about October when I had that conversation with my doctor.
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal: Now, you work as an attorney, which we all know can involve long hours of intense cognitive work. So, how did being diagnosed with what would eventually become known as Long COVID impact you at work?
Erica Taylor: Well, it definitely had a severe impact. The first thing that happened is that I attempted to go back to work after my acute illness, and was very quickly discovered that I was still having difficulty thinking clearly, concentrating and staying awake long enough to concentrate. And also, the more I became tired, the worse it was in terms of concentration as well. And so, I attempted to work, and I ended up having to go out on short-term disability. I was on short-term disability for about six months, and during that time, really focused on the two things that were the most debilitating for me day-to-day, which was the fatigue and also the confusion and cognitive issues that I was suffering.
And essentially, within those six months, found a way to at least make it, as I even coined it during a blog that I wrote, “painful but doable.” And honestly, that’s how it’s continued to be for me ever since. I take stimulants, and that’s part of what helps me stay awake and functioning, but I had to take breaks from those. I have to allow myself to rest. And so, most of my weekends are spent asleep. I also do brain puzzles every day, because that was the advice that was given to me by my neurologist. And it’s essentially allowed my brain to heal itself in a lot of ways, but then I also do lots of tricks and tips to help me stay focused and help me remember what’s supposed to happen next.
I have essentially everything that I do written out in lists, really comprehensive lists. And so, that’s how I manage it day-to-day. But I will say – and I’ve said this before when I first returned, and I continue to say it now – that this is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, and I’m still figuring it out from day-to-day, how to make it work, and how to get the work done, and how to live my life.
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal: Wow! That’s very compelling. Thank you for sharing that with us. Amy, as our employment law expert, can you explain and give us a little bit of background about how the law protects persons with disabilities in the workplace?
Amy McAndrew: Sure. So, the main federal law that we’re talking about is the Americans with Disabilities Act. And under the ADA, to have a disability means having a physical or a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. And a major life activity can be seeing, walking, talking, thinking- which pertains to Erica’s case.
And basically, employers have two obligations under the ADA. One is to not discriminate. So, we’re not terminating employees simply because they have a disability. But the other one, and I think the one that becomes more complicated for a lot of employers is the duty to reasonably accommodate. And that basically means helping employees do their jobs, even though they have a disability.
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal: And under the ADA, is Long COVID considered to be a disability?
Amy McAndrew: Well, the law’s evolving, and COVID will have an effect on the law, especially employment law I think for years and years to come. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC- it’s the federal agency that handles complaints of harassment and discrimination in the workplace,-they have said, “Yes, Long COVID in many cases is going to be considered a disability under the ADA.” And each situation is case-by-case. It may be that the employer asks for medical documentation to support the disability. But certainly, in a situation that is affecting day-to-day life as much as Erica’s situation is, I think there’s little doubt that that would be considered a disability.
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal: Thank you. Erica, as someone who’s living with a chronic illness, and managing it on a day-to-day basis, what are one or two things that you wish that people were aware of that they might not know just by meeting you?
Erica Taylor: Well, first off, I’m just so glad that you asked this question, because I do think it’s important. And I strive to try to get these messages out whenever I can. And the first thing is that even on days where I look like I’m healthy, I’m usually hurting. At least in one place, if not several. And so, even when it looks like I am okay, I’m still having issues. I deal with this every day. I am struggling every day. And the other thing is we need grace. There are a lot of long-haulers out there like me. And we go across the spectrum from having major issues related to our post-COVID complications to having more minor issues, but still things that we are trying to understand and trying to come to grips with.
And it’s a day-to-day process. As I mentioned, I am still figuring things out from day-to-day, and this condition has interrupted my ability to do several things in life. Not just working, but also managing to keep my home clean, managing to keep myself fed. And I’m still trying to figure out how to manage my life as it is now. And so, we definitely need grace and understanding.
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal: That’s so important to know, thank you. And Amy, as our employment law expert, what are one or two things that you would like for both employers and employees to be aware of in this time as we’re discovering more about Long COVID?
Amy McAndrew: Sure. Well, I think for employees, talk to your employers. So many disabilities are invisible disabilities, like Erica’s talking about. An employer can’t know what’s going on with an employee unless the employee talks to the employer. And even better if you can come to the employer with a plan, and a plan backed by your healthcare provider to figure out how better to do your job with your disability. Now, from the employer’s point of view, again, we’re still learning a lot with regard to COVID, but I think it’s really important to ask questions. It’s easy when an employee comes to us and says, “I need this to do my job.”
It’s a lot harder when we see an employee struggling, and we’re not really sure what to do. So, don’t be afraid as an employer to ask the question. And you don’t ask, “Do you have a medical issue going on,” because that would actually violate the ADA, but you ask, “What can I do to help you?” And hopefully, the employee trusts you to come forward and to have an ongoing conversation with you so that you can help that employee do their job. And especially right now, recruitment is so difficulty. Retention is so difficult. If we have good employees who are temporarily struggling, I think all employers would like to do what they can to try to help that person.
ACTEC Fellow Karen M. Stockmal: Well, thank you. This has been very enlightening. Thank you both so much for joining us today. Erica, thank you for sharing your personal story and journey. Amy, thank you for sharing your employment law expertise. And thanks for listening.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: The COVID pandemic continues to have many long-term impacts on our country and the world. How can we be inclusive and supportive of our personal and work communities that are dealing chronic illness, such as Long COVID? Employers have the duty to not discriminate and reasonably accommodate Long COVID, according to the ADA. Erica recommends “grace and understanding” of those navigating the chronic illness path. Employers and individuals alike should educate themselves about the impact of Long COVID on those suffering from it.
Please visit ACTEC, actec.org/diversity for resources on this and other related topics. And be sure you subscribe to ACTEC’s YouTube channel to be informed of new videos as they become available.