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How workplaces can support employees with long COVID

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of American workers have had COVID. And while most have recovered, there are many who need more time to feel up to speed. There are also many who are back at their jobs but with lingering struggles - fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath - months after their initial infection. And that's become known as long COVID. How should employers approach managing a post-COVID workforce? Terri Rhodes is the CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. She joins us from Phoenix. Thanks so much for being with us.

TERRI RHODES: Thank you.

SIMON: How do we define long-term COVID? - 'cause I gather a lot hinges on that definition.

RHODES: Yes. Long COVID is symptoms - chronic fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, headaches, depression - that have lasted more than six months. These conditions prolong recovery and impact someone's ability to get back to work.

SIMON: What specific challenges does that present in the workplace for a lot of people?

RHODES: Oh, my gosh. So, you know, the most prevalent symptom of long COVID is fatigue. The next one is brain fog or some cognitive difficulty, some memory loss, general stamina issues. And so if you're somebody who works in an office environment, it's much easier to accommodate some of those issues. But if you're an individual who works in a manufacturing site and you have to stand all day or you have inflexible work hours, it makes it much more difficult.

SIMON: Legally, what accommodations are employers required to make for people who might be dealing with long COVID?

RHODES: The EEOC did define long COVID as a disabling condition, and so employers have to reasonably accommodate. There is a few little caveats to that. We call it, you know, the Americans with Disabilities Act. And this is a federal law. Employers have to have 15 or more employees. Some state laws, however, do have accommodation laws that have a lower employee threshold.

SIMON: Well, let me understand what some of those accommodations are. As you suggest, some of those accommodations might be easier to make for an office worker lifting their fingers and looking at a screen than for, say, a bus driver.

RHODES: Yes. You know, making an accommodation for long COVID is really no different than making an accommodation for other medical conditions. And employers are required to go through what we call the interactive process. The employer and the employee have a conversation about what their restrictions and limitations are, and then, you look for the most reasonable accommodation. And a typical workplace accommodation is less than $500.

SIMON: What if somebody, for example, is working on some kind of assembly line at a factory?

RHODES: So for someone who's working on an assembly line - let's just use fatigue as an example - they may need to take more frequent breaks, or they could temporarily remove that person from the line and put them in another position that would fit within those restrictions and limitations.

SIMON: Ms. Rhodes, what might you tell an employer who might say, look, I want to help this employee, but we run at a very tight margin here? And I can only make so many accommodations without losing money and keeping the company going, which, after all, benefits everyone who works here.

RHODES: You know, like I said, most accommodations are less than $500. And individual employees bring intellectual knowledge, intellectual capital to an employer. There are costs associated with having to bring in new employees. So there's recruiting, training costs for an individual. If you look at those things and then you look at the individual that you have that maybe you could make just a small accommodation, a small tweak to their job to allow them to continue to work, that's much more cost-effective.

SIMON: Terri Rhodes is the CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition. Thank you so much for being with us.

RHODES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.