In the next few months, half a million Australians will be diagnosed with ‘long COVID’ in a labour market shortage so dire it’s the second worst in the developed world — and that means major chaos for workplaces is on the way.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says long COVID is a condition where people experience symptoms three months after their initial infection including shortness of breath, fatigue, fever, headaches, brain fog, and other neurological problems.
It’s affecting about 5% of those who are diagnosed with the virus. Based on those numbers, 3000 of the 55,000 cases of COVID-19 reported in Australia yesterday could develop long COVID.
And Omicron’s fourth wave is projected to get a lot worse before it gets better, as the newer BA.4 and BA.5 variants better evade immunity from previous infection and vaccination.
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So what can a workplace do to prepare for the impending health crisis? SmartCompany spoke to two professionals to get their views: a workplace relations lawyer and an HR expert.
Should business leaders worry about long COVID?
Yes, CEO of human resources consultancy ASPL Group Kris Grant says, and if they don’t prepare now, there may be a price to pay.
“We are likely to go through a big wave of infections in coming weeks and the public health authorities have told us all to prepare,” she said.
“That includes employers, who need to be strategic and work through contingencies as infections increase, otherwise employers risk the rest of their workforce getting infected.”
What should leaders do to prepare?
Grant says now is the time for workplaces to integrate long COVID into flexible work policies, the workplace’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and health insurance for staff.
Not doing so means an employee can feel isolated and unsupported, and may even ultimately depart the workplace.
“Business leaders can provide further flexibility for workers who are suffering long-term COVID by allowing them to reduce their number of working hours and align their policies to support the workforce and remove any associated stigmas,” she said.
“Employers that are open and inclusive around their support for disabilities including long COVID will increase their retention and also show a commitment to a diverse workforce.”
Is there long COVID leave?
No, says Wesley Rogers from Marque Lawyers, “there is no additional or special leave associated with long COVID”.
“To the extent that it is impacting on an employee’s ability to do their job, it would be managed like any chronic illness,” he continued.
“That said, managing chronic illnesses can be tricky.”
What if the employee with long COVID can’t work?
Rogers says there may come a point where the employee has become unable to perform the duties of their role because of the impact of long COVID.
“An employer will have grounds to end an employee’s employment if the employee cannot perform the inherent requirements of their position,” Rogers said.
But a word of warning: “While an employer may believe that it is best placed to make that call, it typically isn’t,” he said.
That’s because we don’t know very much about long COVID yet. Research is still in its infancy, with no consistent definition agreed upon yet by the WHO, the National Institute of Health Research in the UK, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the US.
Even so, “the extent to which an illness impacts an employee’s ability to do their job is best assessed by a doctor or experts in the field”, Rogers said.
Are there legal considerations when sacking someone with long COVID?
Yes, Rogers says “an employer must gather as much information as possible regarding the employee’s fitness for work” otherwise the issue could quickly turn into a court matter with costly litigation and hefty fines possible.
“Any termination of employment connected with an employee’s illness can risk an anti-discrimination claim based on disability or a general protections claim including, for example, on grounds that the employee was let go because, or partly because, they took personal leave,” Rogers said.
“The general protections provisions also prohibit an employer from terminating an employee’s employment because the employee was temporarily absent due to illness or injury.”
But the temporary absence protection does not apply if the employee has been absent for more than three months, either consecutively or over a 12-month period, Rogers added.