What Happens if You Can’t Work Due to Long COVID?

Nurse with face mask sitting at home with senior woman and injecting covid 19 vaccine.

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After the initial illness has subsided, some who've recovered from COVID-19 experience ongoing symptoms that last months or even years—a condition dubbed "long-haul COVID-19" or "long COVID." If long COVID symptoms are severe enough, it can be difficult to work and earn an income. If you have long COVID, here's what you should know about your rights as an employee, what to do if you are laid off, where to get financial help and how to adjust to your unfortunate new reality.

What Is Long COVID?

Research indicates that up to one-third of people who have recovered from COVID-19 have ongoing symptoms that can include fatigue, "brain fog" or trouble concentrating, shortness of breath, and dizziness when standing. Such conditions can make it hard to work, and can linger for months.

Long COVID now qualifies as a disability under several federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, if any lingering physical or mental symptoms substantially limits one or more major life activities. Individual assessment is needed to determine if your symptoms qualify, but if they do, you're entitled to certain workplace protections.

Generally, this means your employer must make "reasonable accommodations" to allow you to do your job. That might include letting you sit instead of stand while working, putting you on a part-time work schedule, allowing you to take more frequent breaks or reassigning your nonessential job duties to another employee. You can review U.S. Department of Labor guidelines to understand your rights, how to request employer accommodations and what to expect.

If you can't work even with accommodations, and your employer is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you may qualify for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. During this time, your employer must hold your job open for you and continue any health insurance coverage they provide for you.

Some with long COVID are applying for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. To qualify for these benefits, you must be able to provide a medical diagnosis and evidence that your medical condition has prevented or will prevent you from performing any work at any job for at least 12 months. You must also have worked long enough and recently enough in jobs that are covered by Social Security.

Check your employee benefits to see if they include disability insurance. If so, contact the insurance carrier to see whether you qualify and how to apply for benefits.

What Should You Do if You Lose Your Job?

Long COVID may qualify you for workers' compensation benefits, but there are no federal laws regarding workers' compensation insurance—each state has its own regulations. If your employer is covered by workers' compensation laws, you're entitled to compensation for illnesses or injuries acquired on the job. The problem for those with long COVID: It's very difficult to prove you contracted COVID-19 at work. As a result, many states have ruled that the illness isn't covered by workers' compensation. If you think you have a case, contact your state's department of workers' compensation to learn more about coverage and how to file a claim.

If you believe you lost your job for reasons related to your long COVID symptoms, you may be able to pursue legal action. In general, workers can't be fired for having a disability if reasonable accommodations would allow them to do their job. But if the employer can show that making those accommodations would put an undue hardship on the company, they might be able to fire you. Employment laws vary from state to state, so you should check with your state's labor department or contact a source of free legal aid to learn about your rights.

If you lose your job, what should you do about health insurance? The federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) requires businesses with 20 or more employees to give former employees the option to keep their health insurance for 18 months after their employment ends. Some states have their own laws covering smaller employers. However, COBRA coverage can be costly, since you'll have to pay the part of your premiums that employers normally pay. This is usually only a cost-effective option if you have medical needs that would be unaffordable without insurance coverage.

Getting coverage under a spouse's, partner's or parent's insurance, if you are eligible, could be a more affordable option. You should also explore health insurance available under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) via the federal Health Insurance Marketplace at Healthcare.gov or through your state's Marketplace. The American Rescue Plan Act of March 2021 expanded eligibility for premium tax subsidies that help pay for Marketplace health insurance, so you may find much of the cost is covered by your subsidy.

Depending on your income, you might also qualify for Medicaid, a federal health insurance program for low-income individuals. When you apply for Marketplace health insurance, you'll automatically be considered for Medicaid and will be contacted if you're eligible.

What Resources Are Available to Those With Long COVID?

In addition to the resources above, a variety of other resources can help you deal with the financial effects of long COVID.

You can also get support and assistance from these organizations:

How to Manage Your Finances and Pay Your Bills

With your income reduced, how can you make sure you're able to pay your bills on time and avoid eviction? Many federal COVID-19 relief programs, such as rent forbearance and enhanced unemployment benefits, have ended, but some state and local governments have their own programs to help those directly or indirectly affected by COVID-19. Visit your state, city or local government website to see what's offered in your area.

You can also:

If long COVID makes it impossible to do your job, it may be time for a career change. Investigate other jobs you could do with your current physical limitations. For example, you might look for jobs that let you work from home, set your own hours or work part time. Contact your state and local employment offices to see if you can get financial help for job retraining.

Protect Your Credit as You Recover

As you recuperate from COVID-19, take good care of yourself—and of your credit. Through April 2022, you can get a free credit report from each of the major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) each week at AnnualCreditReport.com. For extra peace of mind, sign up for free credit monitoring from Experian.

With much still unknown about long COVID, dealing with this condition can be frightening and frustrating. Fortunately, many resources are available to support you on your journey to recovery.

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