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Accommodations and disability benefits, Challenges, Work Life

Returning to the Workplace While Chronically Ill During COVID-19

Are you getting ready to go back to work during the pandemic while living with a chronic illness or pre-existing condition? 

As states begin to reopen, having some anxiety about returning to work is normal, especially if you have a chronic illness or pre-existing condition.

While some people’s chronic illness or pre-existing conditions make them high risk for complications from the COVID-19, others may not be. However, that doesn’t mean that getting the coronavirus will be easy for them to recover. 

As businesses begin to reopen, there are some things you should be aware of as you enter back into the workforce, and what accommodations could be available to you. 

This article is mostly specific to what is happening in the US. 

As a reference, I gathered the information for this post from the “Returning to Work: What HR Needs to Know” Webinar put on by Careerminds, The O’Connor Group, and DLA Piper. I also reached out to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) regarding ADA Accommodations. 

Disclaimer:  While I worked nearly a decade with a chronic illness, I am not a human resources, insurance, or law professional. The information provided is for informational purposes only and is based on my research, experience, and knowledge.

This information does not guarantee you will receive benefits and/or accommodations. For specifics related to disability accommodations/benefits you may be eligible for, please consult JAN, your Human Resources department, disability insurance company, or attorney.

Opening the office – Your employer may open the office in phases

Your employer may designate certain positions as essential and request employees in these roles to report to the office before the remaining staff returns.

Your employer may not say that the office is open to all employees except for those over a certain age or with certain pre-existing conditions should return to the office. They must provide equal opportunity for all individuals to come back as long as they are not sick with COVID-19.

Your employer has an obligation to keep a safe workplace: 

  1. Your company should make you fully aware of employee expectations. Ideally, your Human Resources (HR) department should have a plan in place.
  2. Every workplace plan will be different, but there should be good communication from your employer about what to expect
  3. There should be documentation on the scenario if you and your colleagues are exposed by a sick colleague and what you should do.
  4. If you do not feel your workplace is safe or communication and/or documentation is vague, follow up with HR. You may want to keep in writing your communications with HR so you can refer back to your notes.
  5. If your concerns aren’t addressed, you can research next steps at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Wear a mask 

The CDC recommends that “people wear a cloth face covering to cover their nose and mouth in the community setting. This is an additional public health measure people should take to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in addition to (not instead of) social distancing, frequent hand cleaning and other everyday preventive actions. A cloth face covering is not intended to protect the wearer, but may prevent the spread of virus from the wearer to others. This would be especially important in the event that someone is infected but does not have symptoms. A cloth face covering should be worn whenever people must go into public settings (grocery stores, for example).” You can read more about CDC recommendations here.

There are many tutorials on YouTube or you can view sewing and non-sewing options from the CDC

Be Aware of all Open Communal Areas

Take extra precautions such as social distancing in places multiple people may congregate or touch items. These places may include the breakroom (microwave, refrigerator, tables, chairs), workrooms (copiers, printers, and other shared office equipment/supplies), bathrooms, conference rooms, etc.

Employers may now require daily screening 

Not sure how many corporate jobs will do this, but keep in mind that employers are allowed to do the following screenings: 

  • temperature tests, 
  • questionnaires, 
  • swab tests, or 
  • antibody tests. 

NOTE: All of these results should be kept confidential at all times.

Employers may ask employees specific questions related to COVID-19 symptoms.

HOWEVER, employers may not ask about underlying health conditions or questions that could back into underlying health conditions.

  1. It’s okay for them to ask if you’re experiencing fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, or other symptoms related to COVID-19
  2. It’s not okay for them to ask employees who do not have COVID-19 symptoms to disclose whether they have a medical condition that the CDC says could make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 complications

Action: Read more about the Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

ADA Accommodations

Not sure what an ADA accommodation is? Click here to find out more.

Below are different scenarios regarding ADA accommodation requests. If you have any specific questions about your chronic condition, I highly recommend visiting JAN and asking one of their consultants. They are very nice and helpful. 

If your job can only be performed at the workplace, are there ADA accommodations you can request if your disability causes you to be at high risk for COVID-19?

Yes, as long as it’s considered a reasonable request. The EEOC states in D.1. that, “Low-cost solutions achieved with materials already on hand or easily obtained may be effective…to ensure minimum distances between customers and coworkers whenever feasible per CDC guidance or other accommodations that reduce chances of exposure.

Flexibility by employers and employees is important in determining if some accommodation is possible in the circumstances. Temporary job restructuring of marginal job duties, temporary transfers to a different position, or modifying a work schedule or shift assignment may also permit an individual with a disability to perform safely the essential functions of the job while reducing exposure to others in the workplace or while commuting.”

Know that if your employer says no to your initial request, they will most likely come back with another solution that may work just as well. If you and your employer cannot agree on a reasonable request, your employer could ask you to take leave without pay until you can come back to the workplace. 

Request an ADA accommodation to continue to work from home if your disability causes you to be at high risk for COVID-19

If you currently work from home, you can request an ADA accommodation to continue to work from home if your disability causes you to be at high risk for COVID-19. 

Expect documentation requirements to be the same as any other ADA request. But due to a higher number of requests at once, your employer may not require medical documentation at this time. You can read more about this in an article from JAN on ADA Accommodations and if documentation is needed when requesting work from home. 

If your employer doesn’t require paperwork during this time, be sure to have in writing your accommodation’s approval and the end date. This way, you, your boss, and HR are all on the same page.

Request an ADA accommodation to continue to work from home if your disability does not cause you to be at high risk for COVID-19

You can request for an ADA accommodation to continue working from home if the request is disability-related. 

However, this doesn’t guarantee that your employer will approve it, and they could come back with an alternative to your request.

JAN offers this on who can receive reasonable accommodations under the ADA: 

“To be eligible to receive workplace reasonable accommodations under the federal ADA, an individual must have an “actual” or a “record of” a disability, as defined by the ADA Amendments Act. For additional information about the definition of disability, see How to Determine Whether a Person has a Disability Under the ADA. Also, there must be some connection between the impairment and specific need for accommodation. For example, the individual might have an underlying impairment and limitation that, if infected with coronavirus, would lead to serious complications. There is no comprehensive list of such impairments, but individuals with heart disease, diabetes, lung disease or asthma, a weakened immune system, kidney disease, cirrhosis, etc. are considered at higher risk for developing serious complications, according to the CDC. Coronavirus alone may not be considered a disability under the ADA, due to the illness being transitory and having limited impact on major life activities in ordinary circumstances.”

ADA Accommodations for a pre-existing mental illness or disorder

If your pre-existing mental illness or disorder has made it more challenging to handle the changes that have been occurring due to COVID, you may be in a place to request a reasonable accommodation to continue to work from home. The EEOC has more details at D.2.

According to the EEOC, your “employer may: ask questions to determine whether the condition is a disability; discuss with the employee how the requested accommodation would assist him and enable him to keep working; explore alternative accommodations that may effectively meet his needs; and request medical documentation if needed.”

Remember, if you have specific questions related to your chronic condition and whether your request is reasonable, don’t forget to ask a consultant at JAN.

Do you have to share your pre-existing chronic condition with your employer and boss if you request an ADA accommodation? 

Your employer may request that your doctor fill out a form documenting your medical condition and accommodation requests. This should be done through your HR department and be kept confidential.  

You do not have to tell your boss what your pre-existing condition is, and HR is not allowed to disclose to your boss what your pre-existing condition is.

To keep your boss in the loop, you may want to mention that you are applying for an ADA Accommodation or talking to HR about continuing to work from home.

What if I’m too scared to come to the workplace and I don’t have a pre-existing mental illness or condition?

Being afraid of contracting COVID is not covered by the ADA.

I would still recommend asking your boss and/or HR to continue work from home (if that’s possible) because the worst they can say is, “No.” Your employer may ask you some follow up questions in order to make a determination. 

If your request is denied, your employer can require you to come in or take unpaid leave.

Learn more with JAN’s article on coronavirus, stress, and mental health.

If your boss or HR approves your continue to stay at home request, I recommend having the agreement in writing with how long you are allowed to continue to work from home. This way, it can be easily referenced if people forget.


I know this stuff is not very exciting to read and sometimes hard to decipher. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out to your HR department or JAN about reasonable accommodations. Or you can post a question in the comments below.

Here’s a list of the links mentioned in this post:

Pin with picture of a conference room and a laptop and mug on the table. Under the picture, the text says, "Returning to the Workplace While Chronically Ill During COVID-19." Under that is

Sara at Managing Chronic

Sara has worked in corporate America for almost 15 years, and she's worked the last eight years with FND. Her FND comes with paroxysmal dystonia, chronic fatigue, brain fog, sensory overload, muscle pain, and more. She is currently a part-time career woman, a mom and a wife.

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