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How is long COVID affecting people in the workplace? The federal government wants to crowdsource solutions

A vacant desk in a downtown office in Boston.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

How is long COVID affecting people, their co-workers, and the companies where they work? The federal government is launching a listening campaign to find out.

The officials want to gather ideas to “better support” workers who have symptoms, their co-workers, and their employers, the Labor Department said in a statement

The “national online dialogue,” which is being hosted by the Labor Department, the Surgeon General, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began Tuesday on a website titled, “Understanding and Addressing the Workplace Challenges Related to Long COVID.

“Please share your experiences, insights, and possible solutions to workplace challenges posed by long COVID. We’re eager to hear from individuals, employers, national organizations, state and local community groups and others as we collaborate on long COVID-related policies, practices and initiatives,” the website says.

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The CDC estimated last month that nearly 1 in 5 US adults who have had a case of COVID still are suffering from long COVID, defined as symptoms lasting three or more months after first contracting the virus. (Put another way, 1 in 13 of all US adults have long COVID, the agency estimated.)s

Experts say long COVID includes a wide range of symptoms including shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog, heart palpitations, headaches, anxiety, depression and other symptoms.

The federal government is looking for ideas from people “that they believe can help federal agencies identify and respond to long COVID’s workplace challenges, and help reduce the employment and financial impacts of the condition,” the statement said.

The US Government Accountability Office said in a March report that “researchers do not yet fully understand the risk factors, causes, and effects of long COVID.” It also said the “broader public health, social, and economic effects of long COVID are unclear.” And it noted a Brookings Institution estimate that long COVID could be keeping more than a million people off the job at any given time.

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At the same time, many other people with long COVID have kept working, struggling to cope with their symptoms. The Labor Department says people with long COVID may be entitled to ask their employer for workplace accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Jasmine Harris, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ADA provides employees and companies with a “roadmap for how to deal with this.”

But she also suggested that it could be a moment for employees and companies to consider “broader innovation ... to take a step back here and say, ‘How can we look at the work we’re doing and rethink the way we’re doing it?’”

For example, some companies could revisit policies and practices around flex-time, said Harris, an expert in disability law, which could help not only people with long COVID symptoms like fatigue and brain fog but all employees.

She said she welcomed the website as a way to connect government regulators, company compliance teams, and people with long COVID. “To increase that communication directly is a good thing,” she said.

Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, said, “I think it’s appropriate the Department of Labor does this. ... It’s always good to get opinions.”

She said the full extent of the long COVID impact on the workplace hasn’t been felt yet. She said many people with long COVID have been on short-term or long-term disability leave and it’s not clear if they’ll be 100 percent when they return to work.

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When people with long COVID do return, she said, “It behooves organizations and business to improve their accommodation request process, to educate their employees about how to request accommodations.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of law professor Jasmine Harris.




Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.