Q: I am a candidate for a role in biotech. I have been diagnosed with long COVID (or PASC, the medical term). I will need some accommodations for this condition. How or when do I ask a prospective employer?
A: You have asked a timely question as many in the US are battling with more serious infections from COVID-19. I consulted with Kathleen A. Berney, an employment attorney at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein. Berney counsels, “Under state and federal law —the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, companies are required to provide reasonable accommodations to people who disclose a disability, which the law defines as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. For Massachusetts employers the law applies to companies with 6 or more employees and the ADA applies to companies countrywide with 15 more employees.”
The candidate or employee must be qualified to be protected by these laws. Qualified means that they can perform the essential functions of a job with or without a reasonable accommodation. “Long COVID” has now been identified as a disability under the ADA and other federal laws in certain situations. It may be worthwhile to review a publication (July 2021) issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
In your case, and for others with “silent disabilities” you may decide that you prefer not to share your private medical information until you get an offer or start your new job. In some cases, your disclosure could impact you negatively, and hinder your chance of getting the job. This is illegal, but, in reality, it does happen. Some individuals choose to disclose during the interview process because they believe it is important to bring their authentic self to the workplace, and then let the company respond. Again, there is no right or wrong approach.
Berney shares “If you voluntarily disclose to the company pre-offer, they will be limited to asking you questions about whether you will need an accommodation to perform a specific job duty, and if the answer is yes, the employer may then ask what the accommodation would be. The employer is prohibited from asking you any questions about the nature or severity of the disability pre-offer. After extending a conditional job offer, however, the employer may ask you any disability-related question or require a medical examination if all individuals selected for the same job are asked the same questions or made to take the same examination.”
Once you decide to tell the company about your disability, you should expect to engage in what the ADA calls the “interactive dialogue” with the company, often with an HR person. An employer may require that you provide medical documentation in support of your disability and accommodation request. You don’t even have to use the phrase reasonable accommodation. It may be helpful to review the job description and be able to explain how long COVID impacts your ability to do your job and its specific duties. Your employer may need your input to better understand how they can help you succeed in your role.
An employer is not required to accept your list of ideal accommodations. Instead only accommodations that are reasonable. Reasonable can vary, based on company size, industry, role as well as other factors. Berney offers an example: “It may not be reasonable for you to expect to work at home, for example, if the job requires you to work in a research lab, and your employer could lawfully deny that request. An employer may also deny your request if it would cause an “undue hardship” on its business operations. Again, there is no set definition of what that means, and the employer’s size, structure, finances matter.”
Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.