Have Long COVID and Can't Work? Here's What to Do

A pile pf paperwork topped with a paper that reads "social security disability claim"


Key Takeaways

  • Long COVID symptoms can impact daily life and leave some patients unable to work.
  • Some individuals with long COVID may be eligible for Social Security benefits if they meet specific criteria.
  • If you have a short-term or long-term disability plan, you may also receive supplemental income per your policy.

For millions of people, a bout of COVID-19 was the start of debilitating chronic symptoms that have completely upended their lives. According to recent survey data cited by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), approximately up to may one-third of COVID cases have turned into post-COVID conditions or “long COVID.”

Up to 33 million working-age adults in the United States may have long COVID. About half of the respondents who had been employed before they got COVID are now either unable to go back to work or have to work fewer hours because of lasting symptoms.

If long COVID is preventing you from working or securing the income you once had, it’s important to know resources for financial support are available.

What Is Long COVID?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), symptoms that last longer than four weeks after a person has COVID qualify as post-COVID conditions or “long COVID.”

Long COVID can last weeks to months after a person has a COVID infection. The original symptoms a person had may linger, or symptoms might come back or come on after a person gets over the infection.

Long COVID is still a mystery, but experts think it could be because the immune system continues to respond as though a COVID infection is still active, but the virus has cleared the body.

In some cases, COVID virus particles may reactivate, causing symptoms to reappear.

Any case of COVID can turn into long COVID, but it is more likely to happen in people who had severe COVID. People who are fully vaccinated against COVID are less likely to get long COVID and tend to have a less severe case of it if they do.

Why Does Long COVID Make It So Hard to Work?

Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, FASN, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, MO, told Verywell that long COVID can affect nearly every organ system.

“When patients develop organ dysfunction, they can have disabling consequences,” he said.

The list of symptoms of long COVID is lengthy and still growing, but some common symptoms that can affect a person’s ability to work include:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Cough or shortness of breath
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking (“brain fog”)
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness on standing
  • A rapid heartbeat with a fluttering feeling in the chest (palpitations)
  • Depression or anxiety

“Some long COVID patients were once athletic and energetic,” said Al-Aly. “After COVID, they get profoundly exhausted doing small things, like going to the bathroom in their house. That’s very limiting, especially if their work requires them to be physically active.”

Al-Aly also pointed out that the mental fatigue or “brain fog” of long COVID poses its own work challenges.

“If someone has a job that requires them to read, write emails, or concentrate, they will have difficulty focusing,” he said.

Does Long COVID Qualify as a Disability?

According to the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, long COVID illness that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

People who qualify for disability from long COVID are entitled to the same protections that are afforded to any person covered by the ADA.

Major life activities include things like:

  • Self-care activities (e.g., bathing, dressing)
  • Manual tasks (e.g., eating, cooking)
  • Vision and hearing
  • Mobility (e.g., walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending)
  • Talking and breathing
  • Learning, reading, concentrating, and thinking
  • Communicating and interacting with others

Getting Federal Social Security Assistance

There are two types of Social Security benefits for disabled people: supplemental security income (SSI) and social security disability insurance (SSDI).

  • Supplemental security income (SSI): People with a medical condition that prevents them from working that’s expected to last one year or longer may qualify for supplemental security income (SSI). The amount that you can get will depend on your household income and how much money you already have. People who qualify for SSI might also be eligible for food assistance benefits and Medicaid.
  • Social security disability insurance (SSDI): SSDI pays benefits to people who worked and paid social security taxes on their income before they become disabled. Employees earn “work credits” for the time they worked and the amount they contributed to Social Security, which factors into how much they get. SSDI may also provide supplemental income to dependent family members, such as minor children who are still living in the home.

You can apply for SSI or SSDI on the Social Security Administration website, or by appointment at your nearest social security office. Before you start the application process, check the SSDI checklist to make sure that you have all the necessary information.

Some important data to gather includes your:

  • Full name, date of birth, and social security number for yourself, your spouse, and any dependents living in your household
  • Employment history
  • Bank routing and account numbers
  • Medical history about your disability, including names of your providers, hospitalization dates, any therapy or rehabilitation you have received, and medications you take

Disability Insurance Plans

If you pay for short-term or long-term disability insurance through your employer or a private plan, you might be able to get supplemental income, depending on your policy.

“If your long COVID symptoms are significant enough to prevent you from doing your job, generally, those will qualify you for disability under your employer plan,” Jay Kirschbaum, Director and Senior Vice President of Benefits Compliance at World Insurance Associates, told Verywell.

According to Kirschbaum, plans may pay partial benefits if you can return to work but need to take a lower-paying job because you have physical limitations.

Short-term disability is usually easier to get than long-term disability, which requires a higher burden of proof. If you try to get a payout from long-term disability insurance, most plans will require you to try to get Social Security assistance first.

“Most long-term disability plans require you to seek federal disability benefits first before they pay out because federal benefits will come first if you qualify under those plans,” Kirschbaum said.

How to Cope With Long COVID Symptoms

Long COVID is an evolving diagnosis, so there is no standard of care for the condition yet. Right now, management is about helping a person cope with their symptoms.

“If you haven’t already, seek care in a clinic where they are used to caring for long COVID patients. You’ll require specialized care, and because long COVID is new, not everybody has experience in it,” Al-Aly said. “Seek care as early as possible if you have COVID-19 and are not back to your usual self. It’s better to identify and treat long COVID early on.”

What This Means For You

If you can’t go back to work, learn about Social Security benefits and any employer-sponsored or private disability plans that you are available. It may take a while to get help, but keep advocating for yourself and seek out support when you need it.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Long COVID or post-COVID conditions.

  2. National Institutes of Health. Long COVID.

  3. National Institutes of Health. Clinical spectrum of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

  4. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. Guidance on "long COVID" as a disability under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557.

  5. Social Security Administration. You may be able to get supplemental security income.

  6. Social Security Administration. The faces and facts of disability.

By Cyra-Lea Drummond, BSN, RN
 Cyra-Lea, BSN, RN, is a writer and nurse specializing in heart health and cardiac care.