Long Covid is currently hindering the lives of hundreds of people in Ireland and with more and more workplaces now returning to normal, it is set to cause “massive issues” for employers and employees according to employment and HR experts.
There are still more unknowns than knowns when it comes to long Covid, and it affects people differently.
People suffering with the condition recently spoke to BreakingNews.ie about their symptoms and the impact it has had on their lives.
Dublin-based employment law solicitor Richard Grogan and Andy Davies, of HR company MHR International, spoke to BreakingNews.ie about some of the issues that long Covid could present in the workplace.
Mr Davies, who has studied the impact of long Covid in UK businesses, said the uncertainty around the condition is the biggest challenge.
“Long Covid in itself is unknown, and I think that’s the biggest part of the problem. Both employers, employees and medical people are still trying to get to grips with what long Covid is, what it looks like. There’s an understanding of some of the symptoms but what that means in terms of business and as an employer is yet to be determined.
“With this staggered return to work we’ve had, some places are only now getting people back into offices, and it’s only now that we’re going to see the impact of long Covid at work.
“People are going through confusion at the moment as to what it is and how to deal with it. It’s fair to say that HR teams and employers should be looking at this and probably treating it with the same regard as a disability, saying ‘what reasonable adjustments do we need to make for people to come back to work?’”
Mr Grogan explained that whether long Covid is classed as a disability or not will be a key decision.
Covid is going to present massive issues for employers, long Covid being the first.
“Covid is going to present massive issues for employers, long Covid being the first,” he explained.
“The first question we have with that is, is long Covid going to be classed as a disability? If it’s classified as a disability then employers are going to have to look at the issue of reasonable accommodation, the legal phrase, to accommodate somebody in those circumstances from an equality point of view.
“That does not mean giving them a new job, it means looking at how their job can be reconfigured to take that issue into account. There’s going to be issues there, including whether they’ll have to look at remote work for somebody suffering with long Covid, how can the job be reallocated to take account of their position?
“It’s not going to be as difficult for someone in an office environment, but it’s going to be massive for somebody who is a manual worker, generally speaking it’s not possible to reallocate work for them, that’s the difficulty.
“The next issue is going to be how long do you keep a job open? To dismiss an employee in those situations the employer has to get the employee medically examined, and they have to get a prognosis as to when they’re likely to be able to return to work fully. That again is going to be a difficulty because nobody knows how far down the line long Covid will last. They’re the two big issues coming in with that.”
Mr Davies said understanding will be the most important thing for employers when their workers are struggling with long Covid.
“Businesses need to look at the impact this is going to have, at some point it may impact their productivity, it’s about how do they mitigate that. What do they put in place to lessen the impact of it? Revised working arrangements may be one of those mitigations, but it’s certainly something employers need to start looking at now.
“One of the key things is talking to people, especially if they haven’t yet fully returned to work or are working in a hybrid manner, which in some ways may be masking some of those symptoms, because how people are working can do that. It may be when they return to the office the symptoms may become more prevalent, and it may be more obvious to people that they’re suffering.
“Employers need to treat reports of sickness from any employee carefully and with empathy, care and understanding, it doesn’t matter what it is.
“HR teams throughout the world need to really understand what long Covid means, the available research on it, in order to have empathetic conversations around it.”
With restrictions easing further after October 22nd, Mr Grogan expects vaccination to be a big issue as well.
He has already heard reports of issues where vaccinated employees have complained about not feeling comfortable around unvaccinated colleagues.
“There’s a divide coming to the workplace where a lot of vaccinated employees saying they’re not happy, and the same with non vaccinated employees.
“Employers have to be very careful when any complaint in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act is made, any form of negative reaction can result in a penalisation case.
“Germany has got over this problem very simply, everyone has to get an antigen test whether you’re vaccinated or not. Everybody has to get a Covid test and that test lasts for three days. When people are working five days a week they have a second on Thursday.
“If they’re in the office for three days they have their antigen test. Whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated everyone in the workplaces knows that they have a negative antigen test.
“If we’re not going to have massive industrial relations disputes between employees the Government has a choice. The Italian system of the green card, no vaccination, no job, or they have to go with the German route which is the antigen test. Neither of those are politically acceptable, so the alternative will be disputes.
'Bonanza of claims'
“I’m not looking for this, but this is a bonanza of claims that employments lawyers are going to be out the door fighting, between those who are vaccinated and not vaccinated, probably acting on both sides.
“The Government have been incapable of actually giving any clear direction.”
He said the legislation around returning to work is too uncertain in its current from.
“What we’ve got is a return to work situation with no legislation and no real guidance. If we take the work safety protocol, the only part of that any way legally sound is you can’t ask someone if they are vaccinated.
“Come October 22nd that work safety protocol has no legal standing whatsoever. The current rules on social distancing, signage, cleaning and all the rest are currently legally enforceable. Come the 22nd the HSA can say 'you’re not complying', but employers can turn around and say, 'well actually that’s personal responsibility, so I’m taking my personal responsibility, and I’m not doing it, what are you going to do about it?'
“There will be employees who go to employers and say, 'we’re packed in here like sardines, you’ve closed all the windows because it’s cold, there’s no cleaning stuff'. The employer who acts badly in that situation ends up with a claim against them for penalisation whereas the employer who just smiles nicely and says, 'yeah, would you like a cup of tea?' The employer can just fall back on the fact they have not broken the Welfare at Work act.
“This is why the issue of antigen testing would help with a lot of these problems.
“Nphet have something against antigen testing, they just keep pressing for people to get vaccinated, but there is a cohort of people who won’t get vaccinated.
“You either bring in compulsory vaccination, which there would be serious concerns over, or you bring in antigen testing and give companies free tests.
“In Germany once you’ve done your antigen test that is your pass into restaurants, gyms etc.
“In Ireland I think we’ll have an Irish solution to an Irish problem. They’ll say, ‘you can’t ask any of these things, you can’t do antigen testing, we’re bringing it down to personal responsibility'.
“In my opinion that is a complete cop out. If it’s going to be personal responsibility why don’t we do the same for speed limits? It’s going to create a lot of litigation. Employment lawyers are not looking for this form of litigation. We like certainty and to be able to say to people, 'this is what you need to do'.
“We’re down to personal responsibility which is a cop out from the Government. You cannot have personal responsibility when it comes to health and safety.
“There are no rules, so an employer has no procedure if an employee tells them they don’t want to work beside an unvaccinated person.”