COVID-19 has presented employers with leave challenges not only for those currently suffering from COVID-19, but also for employees who have lingering residual symptoms, sometimes referred to as “long COVID.” While the effects of routine COVID-19 cases often have a limited impact on the workplace, more difficult accommodation issues can result from long COVID.
In routine COVID-19 cases, the employee is typically only away from work for five to 10 days. However, long COVID refers to a situation in which the employee suffers long-lasting physical challenges and limitations even after they are able to safely return to work without the risk of infecting others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly one in five Americans are experiencing symptoms of long COVID. Symptoms can include tiredness, fatigue, difficulty breathing, dizziness, pain, depression and anxiety. Employers may receive requests for employees who need time off to see a doctor for these symptoms or need an accommodation due to being limited in what they can perform physically or mentally.
Long COVID under FMLA
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, an eligible employee can take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period. An employee that has a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform one or more of the essential functions of the job is considered an eligible employee. Long COVID likely would be deemed a serious health condition to qualify for FMLA leave if the employee is unable to perform their key job functions due to the symptoms. Also, if symptoms required two or more doctors’ visits a year, this likely would make the employee eligible to take intermittent FMLA leave. In this circumstance, the employer likely would want to get medical certification from the employee’s doctor. This would allow the employer to verify that the employee is experiencing a serious health condition and also provide additional insight into how much leave is requested.
Long COVID under ADA
Long COVID might require an employee to request a work modification to their work schedule. If the symptoms limit the employee’s major life activities, such as breathing or walking, long COVID would be deemed a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Depending on the circumstance, part-time work, work modifications or unpaid leave could be deemed reasonable accommodations, which the employer would be required to implement. Indefinite leave, meaning the employee has not provided a return-to-work date, is not considered a reasonable accommodation. However, occasional leave or even prolonged leave with a definite return-to-work date may be considered a reasonable accommodation.
Employers are obligated to provide leave to eligible employees under the FMLA. For employees requesting an accommodation, the employer should conduct an individualized inquiry into the needs of that employee to begin the interactive process as required by the ADA.