Is Long COVID considered a disability?

Dec 9, 2021

Anyone who has had COVID-19 can potentially become a Long COVID patient, even individuals who had mild cases. As a result, employees affected by Long COVID could become one of the largest groups of employees requiring accommodations and inquiring about disability insurance.

The federal government announced in July 2021 that Long COVID could be classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These provisions apply to employers with at least 15 employees, and protect disabled employees who are qualified from discrimination and require covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations for these employees. The US Department of Labor lists general categories of potential accommodations that can be requested including modified equipment, modified work schedules, or reassignment to a vacant position. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) also provides ideas of specific accommodations based on the symptoms of the employee impacted, including allowing for rest breaks, allowing for flexible schedules or telework, providing ergonomic workstations, allowing for the use of memory aids, and others.  

It is important to note that despite this announcement, Long COVID may not always be considered a workplace disability, in part because a broadly accepted standardized clinical definition is not yet available. Guidance developed by HHS states that Long COVID can be a disability if it is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Since Long COVID is a physiological condition that affects one or more body systems and can limit major life activities such as working, it can qualify as a disability. However, it is not always a disability if an individualized assessment determines that a person’s Long COVID symptoms do not meet these qualifications.

How Long COVID may be covered by Insurance

Individuals may be eligible for benefits due to Long COVID by various programs:

  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): In order to be eligible for SSDI, an individual must not be able to work and have an illness that is expected to last for at least one year, or result in death.
  • Workers’ compensation: Workers may be eligible if they can show that they contracted COVID-19 on the job.
  • Short-term disability: Short-term disability can provide payments right away for a portion of the employee’s paycheck if Long COVID prevents the individual from working. Benefits can be provided for varying time periods, from a few weeks to up to two years.
  • Long-term disability (LTD): After a waiting period, LTD can provide payment for a portion of the employee’s paycheck for a few years or until the disability ends.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): FMLA is unpaid leave for 12 weeks and provides protection of job and health benefits. Employees are eligible to take FMLA for specific medical reasons if they have been at their job for 12 months or longer.

Workforce impacted by Long COVID

Disability insurers also need to prepare for the potential effects of Long COVID on the workforce and on disability insurance. A recent Lancet study found that by seven months, 22% of respondents had not yet returned to work due to continued illness following their post-COVID-19 infection and 45% required reduced work hours compared to pre-illness. 

Anyone who has had COVID-19 can potentially become a Long COVID patient, even individuals who had mild cases. As a result, employees affected by Long COVID could become one of the largest groups of employees requiring accommodations and inquiring about disability insurance. Due to the variability in symptoms and presentation of the illness, cases likely will have to be managed in a customized and individualized manner, and case managers will need clear policies and guidance. 

For inquiries related to the Long COVID Initiative, please contact long_covid_initiative@brown.edu