Long COVID is a newer medical condition that manifests differently among patients, so applications for various disability-based benefit programs based on long COVID may take more time to process or receive greater scrutiny. For federal employees with this illness, eligibility for disability retirement benefits through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) should be available with careful medical documentation of the symptoms before the agency.
An experienced federal employment law attorney can assist a federal-employee client with a disability retirement application based on long COVID by gathering competent medical and other evidence of how the illness limits the employee’s basic life functioning.
This disease can have many disparate symptoms, and it is smart to have all of them assessed by medical professionals. For example, if overwhelming fatigue prevents the person from completing activities of daily living (ADLs), a cardiologist should evaluate the patient’s heart damage, while a mental health professional can assess fatigue associated with serious depression. Both diagnoses may cause fatigue, and both can be associated with long COVID.
What are the medical findings about long COVID?
“Long COVID” refers to a combination of ongoing or intermittent health conditions and symptoms traceable to an earlier COVID-19 infection, mild or severe. The illness is also called PASC (post-COVID sequelae of SARS COV-2 infection), long-haul COVID or post-COVID-19 syndrome, among other names.
Mayo Clinic reports that research suggests that 20% of people 18 to 64 may have long COVID within a month to a year from initial COVID diagnosis; among those 65 and older, the risk rises to 25%.
Common manifestations of PASC include fatigue, fever and respiratory problems. Organ damage such as to the heart, lungs, brain, kidneys and skin may cause a variety of symptoms, says Mayo. Patients report “brain fog” when long haulers have persistent difficulty with organizing thoughts or concentrating.
What is a disability for disability retirement purposes?
According to Mayo Clinic, long haulers may have symptoms for “months or years or [they cause] disability.” But “disability” has different meaning depending on the context.
For purposes of disability retirement eligibility, a federal employee must become disabled during a period of federal employment, but the illness or injury must not be work related. The impairment must prevent “useful and efficient service in [their] current position. (Useful and efficient service means fully successful performance of the critical or essential element of the position – or the ability to perform at that level – and satisfactory conduct and attendance.)” (Quoting opm.gov)
In other words, long-COVID symptoms – physical or mental – must prevent the federal worker from performing the core requirements of the job. Another requirement is an expectation that the disability will last at least one year.
The federal employee needs 18 creditable months of service if covered by the current retirement system FERS, the Federal Employees Retirement System, or 5 years under the older system CSRS, the Civil Service Retirement System.
If the employing federal agency can provide a reasonable accommodation that would allow the worker to perform the key elements of the job or if there is a comparable position available in the agency that the employee could perform despite long COVID, they would not be eligible for disability retirement.
A federal employee struggling with long COVID that interferes with work should speak as soon as possible to a knowledgeable federal employment law attorney. The lawyer can help to assess whether to apply for disability retirement benefits as well as assist with the initial application and supporting evidence.
This consists mainly of medical evidence but may also include affidavits from family, friends or colleagues about their observations of the effects of long COVID. Does the person repeatedly fall asleep during the day? Do they show evidence of pain like wincing, moaning or exclaiming? Do they show signs of mental impairment such as confusion, anxiety or sadness?
Legal counsel can also support an employee whose application was denied with the decision whether to seek reconsideration or appeal and how to present the case. Should long COVID prevent meaningful work, the federal employee has earned disability retirement benefits so long as other eligibility factors are met.