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Is long-haul COVID-19 illness considered a disability?

It’s an important question because it’s illegal to discriminate against a person with a disability in employment or in places of public accommodation.

In California, our laws define disability broadly. For the purpose of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act, a disability is a mental or physical condition that limits a major life activity.

Unfortunately, many people who get serious cases of COVID-19 end up with an illness that continues for six months or longer. This illness often entails debilitating symptoms such as pain, heart palpitations, chronic fatigue, depression and memory problems.

It is very likely that this “long-haul” COVID-19 will qualify as a disability, at least in California. There has been some question, however, whether it will receive full consideration in some federal programs.

For example, the federal Social Security Disability programs only compensate people whose disabilities are expected to last for a year or longer. Since COVID-19 has only been with us for a little over a year, there is a general lack of evidence as to how long long-haul syndrome may last.

Lawmakers and disability rights advocates have already called on the Social Security Administration to develop guidance on long-haul COVID-19.

The FEHA and Americans With Disabilities Act probably cover long-haulers

The definition of disability in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is similar to that in California. It defines a disability as a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A person is generally also covered if they have a history of such impairment or are perceived by others as having such an impairment.

The definition of disability that California uses is considered more inclusive than that of the ADA, but both probably cover long-haul COVID-19.

Consider the case of Jodee P., who worked as the social director for a nursing home in Massachusetts. She probably contracted the virus from work and has had it for nearly 10 months. She still deals with pain, fatigue, depression, memory problems and other issues.

When she used up her medical leave but couldn’t return fully to work, her nursing home fired her. Now, she is hoping to get Social Security Disability, but there are no guarantees.

It’s very likely, however, that she qualifies for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. If she lived in California, it is also likely she would qualify for a reasonable accommodation under the FEHA.

Are you suffering from long-haul COVID-19? Are the symptoms debilitating, in that they limit at least one major life activity? If so, your employer must generally provide an accommodation to help you work. And, you likely deserve protection from discrimination in public accommodations, like housing.

Leigh Law Firm helps people with disabilities in employment and public accommodation cases.