Long Covid should be categorised as a disability because thousands of employees struggling with debilitating health problems need legal protections from discrimination in workplaces, the TUC has urged.
A forthcoming survey commissioned by the union reveals just over half of people with long Covid symptoms, which typically include fatigue, brain fog and shortness of breath, have experienced some form of discrimination or disadvantage where they work.
The online survey of 3,500 people found long Covid sufferers are frequently met with disbelief and suspicion, with managers questioning the impact of the condition in 19% of cases and doubting employees even had long Covid at all in 13% of responses.
Employees in need of time off to recuperate risked sanction, with around one in six workers subjected to HR processes. Nearly one in 10 people were threatened with negative consequences if they needed to be away from work, while one in 20 employees with long Covid were forced out of their jobs.
Key workers were most likely to develop ongoing health problems after catching the virus, with 79% in essential and frontline jobs, where they would have faced higher levels of exposure to coronavirus. The survey also found that 29% of people had been left with symptoms for more than 12 months, which is widely regarded as the threshold for a disability.
Bill Jackson, a social worker in the north-west, caught Covid during the first wave last year. Jackson, 43, not his real name, was off work for 10 weeks but had to go back before he was better. His employer planned to put him on half-pay because he had used up his leave and sick pay entitlement. “I couldn’t afford to stay off,” he said. “The local authority didn’t have policies in place to support people in my position. There was a complete lack of understanding for staff with long Covid.”
Jackson – who used to run 20km and go to the gym five times a week – carried on working despite worsening health problems, including fatigue and repeated infections. He has had five courses of steroids and antibiotics – and still needs to go to bed at 7pm every night. “[Long Covid] has destroyed me,” he said. “I can’t be as hands-on with my baby as I have previously [with my other children]. It has broken my heart.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said many of the workers who had carried us through the pandemic are now living with debilitating symptoms of long Covid. “It’s time to recognise this condition properly – and make sure workers who are living with long Covid get the support they need to do their jobs,” she said.
She said that long Covid must be recognised as a disability, which would mean workers are protected by the Equality Act, and have a right to get reasonable adjustments at work, such as flexible working, longer rest breaks, specialist software or equipment. She added that it should also be designated as an occupational disease. “That would allow workers who contracted Covid-19 at work, and are living with the consequences, to claim the compensation they are due,” she said.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show 376,000 people in the UK have reported having symptoms of long Covid for at least a year after their initial infection – up from 70,000 in early March. The ONS found it was most common in the 35-69 age group, women, health and social care workers, and people with another activity-limiting condition.
A government spokesperson said employers should consider if staff with long Covid symptoms should receive reasonable adjustments.