The Impact of Long-Haul COVID on Employment and Income
As the founder of the COVID Long Haulers Support Group, Lisa Penziner, RN, knows the toll that COVID-19 has taken on people who've had it—both on their bodies and their finances. "I hear a lot about people having to leave their jobs and having to think about doing something else because they just can't do what they were doing," Penziner, who also works as an administrator for Lynbrook Restorative Therapy & Nursing in New York, tells Health.
Some people have taken early retirement, which wasn't in their game plan, but they didn't feel they had any other options. Some have managed to file for disability, but finances are still tight. Some have quit their jobs, and without regular employment, they're struggling to make ends meet.
Here's what you need to know about long COVID and how to cope with the potential impact on your bottom line.
What exactly is long COVID?
Technically called post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2, or PASC, this condition is known by a variety of names, including post-COVID conditions, post-COVID syndrome, long haul COVID, post-acute COVID, chronic COVID, and, yes, long COVID. But all those names are just a way for people to refer to the various symptoms that they experience after having recovered from COVID.
Avi Nath, MD, clinical director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), explains to Health that there are three basic types of long COVID:
- Lingering symptoms after you've been hospitalized with a severe case of COVID-19. Some of your organ systems may have been damaged, and "it's going to be awhile before you get better," says Dr. Nath.
- Lingering symptoms after a less severe case of COVID. It just takes some people longer to recover and feel better than others, explains Dr. Nath.
- New symptoms that develop after you thought you'd recovered from a relatively mild case of COVID. You might experience some brain fog, fatigue, pain, or other symptoms. "That's the more perplexing category of individuals," says Dr. Nath.
How long can long COVID last? We don't really know yet, says Dr. Nath; some people experience it for weeks or months; others say they've developed a chronic side effect. But people are derailing their jobs, their plans, and their finances while grappling with the mental and/or physical symptoms.
What to do if you develop long COVID
If you think you're experiencing symptoms of long COVID, and you're worried about how the recovery process could affect your employment and your bank account, don't panic. After seeing your doctor for insight into your condition, talk to your employer about what needs to happen. You may have to use up your sick or other leave time before you can do anything else. Here are some other steps to take.
Check your coverage
First, investigate all your insurance and disability coverages. Then file a disability claim as soon as possible so you can start receiving disability benefits, Joshua Hargrove, a financial advisor with Insight Wealth Partners, LLC, in Plano, Texas, tells Health.
Ask about workplace accommodations
If you are reluctant to file for disability or leave your job, talk to your employer about job adjustments to help you keep working. Long COVID is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so you do have rights that will qualify you for reasonable workplace accommodations.
Turn to community resources
Consider local and state resources that might be available to you, too. For example, the Administration for Community Living offers support to people with disabilities or connect them to other agencies that can help by arranging personal care and homemaking services or providing meals and transportation.
Try not to run up unnecessary debt
Hopefully you have some emergency savings you can use. But you should also look at all your expenses, including recurring costs. Review your spending habits and try to eliminate unnecessary expenses until you get back on your feet.
Ask for help
Obviously, you have to pay your bills, but if you're struggling to do so, contact your mortgage company, your student loan lender, and your utility companies and explain your situation, Ashley Folkes, a senior financial advisor with Bridgeworth Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama, suggests to Health. They might be willing to work out a deal or payment plan with you. "You are not the first person this has happened to," Folkes says.
What about tapping into your retirement funds?
A word of caution: Although you can dip into your retirement accounts for some funds to tide you over, you might not really want to.
"Simply because the IRS allows investors to borrow or withdraw from your retirement savings does not always mean that this is the best long-term solution," Sean Pearson, a financial advisor and associate vice president with Ameriprise Financial Services LLC in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, tells Health. "Early loans and withdrawals can create a situation where there is not enough money to pay for things post-retirement."
In other words, you may tell yourself that you'll contribute those funds back to your 401(k) or Roth IRA, but what if you don't…or can't? You'll miss out on the benefit of compounding funds, which you'll need when you do eventually retire.
You may also need to plan to work longer to build those funds back up, Gal Wettstein, a senior research economist with the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, tells Health. He adds that research suggests working longer is one of the very best things you can do for your retirement security. "It postpones the time when you start drawing down your savings, and to some extent, it might add to your savings or your Social Security benefits," he says.
If you haven't had long COVID but want to prepare
Consider these strategies so you'll be in better financial shape in case you develop long COVID later on.
Purchase disability insurance
Ideally, you'll already have good health care coverage. But you also need to protect your income, according to Hargrove. "You do that with a long-term disability insurance policy," he says.
You may have some disability insurance coverage through your job, so it's worth checking to find out. "But even if you do, typically it's insufficient to meet your needs if you were not able to go to work for an extended period of time," says Hargrove. That's why it may be worth purchasing disability insurance on your own.
Save some money
This is probably a no-brainer, but it's still worth reiterating. Start socking money away in a rainy-day fund now, because it can take a few months for your disability insurance to kick in—and you may have to depend on your savings to carry you over that gap. "Everybody should have a three-to-six-month emergency store of cash," says Hargrove.
After almost two years of pandemic life, there's still so much that we have to learn about post-COVID syndrome and the full extent of COVID recovery.
Regardless of whether you've had COVID or long COVID, it's normal to be concerned about the financial impact of the pandemic. A survey conducted earlier this year for the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) found that three quarters of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 have been stressed about their finances since the pandemic began.
In September, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded nearly a half billion dollars to fund large-scale studies and research on long-term COVID effects. The NIH's research initiative to get a better handle on understanding, preventing, and treating long COVID is called, fittingly, the RECOVER initiative.
As scientists deepen their knowledge about long COVID, you can do your part to monitor your own health and not ignore any symptoms. And if you do contract COVID-19 or develop long COVID later, be sure to stay in close contact with your both your health care provider and your employer, Kimberly Culver, MSN, RN, director of clinical pharmacy for Sedgwick, tells Health.
If your illness gets to a point where you have to request accommodations at work to stay on the job or file for disability so you can recover at home, you'll need to fill out some paperwork and provide information from your doctor to your employer. "So I would say that communication is key," Culver says.
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