New Jersey Disability Discrimination Laws May Protect People with “Long COVID”

Employment laws in New Jersey and around the country protect workers from discrimination by their employers on the basis of disability. Both state and federal law define “disability” broadly to include a wide range of conditions, including injuries, illnesses, and congenital conditions. After nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are learning more about the long-term effects of the disease on some people. These conditions, often known as “long-haul COVID” or simply “long COVID,” can include symptoms affecting people’s respiratory, neurological, digestive, and reproductive systems, among others. Laws addressing disability discrimination in the workplace may protect people suffering from long COVID. Not only would employers be barred from disparate treatment due to long COVID symptoms, but they would also be obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for those symptoms.

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of disability. The NJLAD’s definition of “disability” includes a “physical…disability…[or] infirmity…which is caused by…illness.” The statute lists many specific conditions across a broad range, such as visual or hearing impairments, paralysis, autism spectrum disorder, and HIV infection or AIDS. The initial language regarding “illness,” however, suggests that the long-term impact of disease also qualifies as a disability.

The ADA specifically states that courts and others should construe its definition of “disability” “in favor of broad coverage of individuals…to the maximum extent permitted by the” statute. It defines the term, in part, as a “physical…impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” including “walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, [and] breathing.”

The statute also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees or job applicants with disabilities, unless the employer can show that it would impose an “undue burden” to do so. Accommodations might include shift schedules that take doctor appointments and other medical needs into account, lifting restrictions for employees with respiratory or neurological symptoms, and bathroom breaks for workers with digestive issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that people can continue to exhibit symptoms related to long COVID weeks or months after recovering from the illness. Some people who did not have serious COVID symptoms have shown long COVID symptoms long after seeming to recover. It remains unclear how long these symptoms will persist. In some cases, the CDC reports that they now appear to be chronic conditions.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has stated that long COVID may qualify as a disability under the ADA and other statutes. It notes that many of the symptoms are the result of the disease causing damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, and other organs or systems. Not every case of long COVID will necessarily meet the standard of “substantially limit[ing] one or more major life activities.” HHS suggests that “individualized assessments” are necessary to determine whether an individual’s symptoms constitute a disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated its agreement with the HHS guidelines and published its own guidance.

The employment lawyers at the Resnick Law Group advocate on behalf of workers in New Jersey and New York, fighting for their rights in claims for unlawful employment practices. Please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you with your case.

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