Long COVID is sidelining millions of workers from their jobs An estimated 4 million workers in the U.S. are struggling to work due to debilitating symptoms from long COVID. The government is urging employers to provide accommodations to keep them on the job.

Millions of Americans have long COVID. Many of them are no longer working

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Close to 20 million adults in the U.S. are believed to have long COVID symptoms right now, according to the Census Bureau. And many of them are reporting that they can't work through the brain fog, the chronic fatigue and pain that they're suffering. NPR's Andrea Hsu has talked with COVID long-haulers and with researchers about the impact long COVID is having on the American workforce. And she joins us now.

Welcome.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So the scale of this - it sounds really daunting. Do researchers know how many people have been sidelined from their jobs because of long COVID?

HSU: Well, several surveys have found that roughly a quarter of people with long COVID report that they can't work, or they're working less because their symptoms are so debilitating. I talked with Katie Bach. She's a fellow with the Brookings Institution. She did some math and came up with what she says is a conservative estimate, 4 million full-time equivalent workers out of work due to long COVID.

KATIE BACH: That is just a shocking number. That's 2.4% of the U.S. working population.

HSU: And then she went a step further to see, how much in wages do these people stand to lose if they're not working?

BACH: Using just average wage, it's about $230 billion a year in lost earnings.

HSU: Now, of course, some of these people may have paid leave, and others may still be getting a full paycheck, even if they're working less than full time. But, Ayesha, all indications are that worker productivity is really suffering because of long COVID.

RASCOE: You spoke with people who have struggled to stay employed. Like, what are you hearing from them?

HSU: Well, some of the stories are really heartbreaking. I talked to Karyn Bishoff in Florida. She was a new recruit with the Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue team in 2020 when she got COVID. She believes she got COVID at one of her trainings. And now, more than two years later, she still has profound brain fog, fatigue, lightheadedness and a slew of other symptoms. And she realizes she will never be a firefighter.

KARYN BISHOFF: Like, I couldn't run into a burning building if I can't regulate my temperature. Like, if I can't control having hypertension, I can't lift up a patient, or I'm going to pass out.

HSU: So she hasn't been able to work. She's pretty much bedbound. But she has become an advocate. She's created a support network online, and she's pushing for policy changes. She'd like to see the Social Security Administration step up its processing of long COVID disability applications. But the problem here, Ayesha, is there's so much variability. Even doctors are saying they have no clue how long it might take people to recover. And of course, not everyone is as ill as Karyn Bishoff. Other COVID long-haulers are able to work, although maybe more slowly or in shorter spurts. But still, it's very concerning. And the Labor Department is trying to find ways to keep people employed.

RASCOE: So what can the Labor Department do?

HSU: Well, they've issued guidance stating clearly that long COVID can be a disability. And why that's important is that people with disabilities have protections under the law. So, for example, employers are required to provide accommodations to workers with disabilities unless doing so presents an undue burden. Accommodations might be working from home or flexible hours. It could be extended leave or maybe a transfer to a different role. Now, of course, not every company can do that, but the Labor Department is urging employers to explore the possibilities. And they're also holding what they call a virtual crowdsourcing event to gather ideas for what else could make a difference. I spoke with Taryn Williams. She heads up the Labor Department's Disability Employment Policy Office.

TARYN WILLIAMS: We strongly encourage folks to take advantage of that online dialogue to help inform us on what we should be considering.

HSU: They want to hear from employees, employers, people with expertise in disability employment. You can Google long COVID at work idea scale - that's S-C-A-L-E - to submit comments.

RASCOE: Has the American workforce ever faced, like, a situation like this before, having so many people at once suddenly needing accommodations for disabilities?

HSU: Well, I asked Taryn Williams that, and she pointed to times of war. Significant numbers of servicemembers did return from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries, for example. And Williams said it's been times like these that have led to shifts in disability policy. So we may see that happen now with long COVID, too.

RASCOE: NPR's Andrea HSU, thank you so much.

HSU: You're welcome.

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