How is Long COVID impacting the workforce?

Dec 6, 2021

Using recommended strategies for a safe working environment to prevent COVID-19 infections and transmission is the best way employers can help prevent Long COVID in their employees.

What is the impact of Long COVID on employees?

Long COVID poses a serious threat to the US workforce as studies have suggested that one third of infected individuals may experience prolonged and debilitating symptoms. Employees with Long COVID may face job loss, loss of health insurance, and financial challenges. In a recent Lancet study conducted by the Patient-Led Research Collaborative, 88% of respondents experienced cognitive dysfunction or memory issues, with the former cited as one of the most frequently reported after 6 months.

Research suggests that low-wage workers may be especially impacted by Long COVID. As low-wage workers are disproportionately Hispanic or Black Non-Hispanic and more likely to be female, racial and gender inequities may also exist. Employment data show that common occupations among low wage workers often involve close contact with the public (e.g., cashiers, salespeople, restaurant employees) or direct close contact with patients or others in the healthcare workforce (e.g., nursing assistants, maids/janitors, housekeeping/laundry, food service). Due to the nature of their jobs, these employees may be at higher risk of contracting COVID, and thus also potentially experiencing Long COVID symptoms. Workplace accommodations may be harder to access for these workers and with the majority of these employees being paid hourly, scaled back hours may result in direct loss of wages.

What is the impact of Long COVID on employers?

Employers are facing economic challenges as they prepare for a return of employees still experiencing health effects from Long COVID. The same Lancet study found that 45% of long haulers required reduced work hours compared to pre-illness and 22% were unable to return to work. Additionally, many respondents reported needing to go back on leave after returning to work due to experiencing relapses triggered by the mental effort and stress of work. Workforce instability means that employers are being confronted with unprecedented staffing shortages and accommodation challenges as well as a growing number of medical leaves of absence and disability claims being filed. 

How can employers support employees with Long COVID?

Employers need to consider how they can best support employees returning to work with Long COVID. One resource developed for employers suggests evaluating accommodations for both physical and cognitive demands, discussing work from home options, and cross-training employees to limit work disruptions when employees require time away. Other considerations for employers may include flexible leave policies, flexible work arrangements, office space for employees to take breaks and rest, and organizing employee support groups. Additionally, Long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as of July 2021. Employers can point their employees to resources for how to learn more about the qualifications and their rights under the ADA.

Employers can also have an impact on Long COVID in their workforce by providing environments to support the prevention of COVID-19 infections. Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, has outlined several steps that employers can proactively take to provide a safe and healthy workplace and prevent the transmission of COVID-19, including:

  • Encouraging or mandating vaccination, particularly for employees who work indoors for extended periods of time
  • Using ongoing rapid testing as a means of identifying and controlling outbreaks among unvaccinated workers
  • Considering de-densifying work spaces by offering more flexible work schedules, including working from home
  • Focusing on indoor ventilation and working towards improving the quality of indoor air
  • Ensuring that employees can take paid time off when they are sick

Some additional measures outlined in guidance provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) include instructing infected employees, close contacts, and workers with symptoms to stay home from work; staying up to date with recommendations for the use of face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE); educating and training employees on COVID-19 policies and procedures; and performing routine cleaning and disinfection. OSHA also encourages employers to facilitate vaccination, including granting paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and recover from side effects. The Business Group on Health found that schedule flexibility, designated time off, or encouraging the use of existing time off are common approaches employers are using to encourage vaccination. Using recommended strategies for a safe working environment to prevent COVID-19 infections and transmission is the best way employers can help prevent Long COVID in their employees.

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