4 things U.S. workers need to know when health worsens after COVID

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(BPT) - The American workforce has been hit hard by COVID-19 in the past few years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that by November 2022, there have been 97.6 million cases in the U.S. In addition, a recent report from Brookings found that about 16 million working-age Americans (those 18-65) currently have long COVID, when symptoms continue for weeks or months after the initial illness.

Of these 16 million, about 2 million to 4 million are out of work — and for some, their absence from work has become indefinite. The most serious complications from this virus include kidney damage requiring dialysis, lung damage requiring supplemental oxygen, cardiac problems, blood clotting issues and strokes. Risk of hospitalization is found to increase notably for those ages 50 to 64. Over time, the Brookings study warns, this workforce impact could worsen.

With the prevalence of long COVID, and its health effects, it’s more important than ever for U.S. workers to be prepared in the event of a disability that disrupts employment. Here are four things they need to know when facing an extended illness.

No. 1: Even if you don’t have employer or private disability insurance, you have federal disability insurance. The Social Security Administration oversees the retirement program as well as the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. More than 159 million Americans have SSDI coverage as a result of their FICA payroll taxes. Benefits include Medicare coverage and additional monthly income for dependents under 18.

No. 2: Your absence from work does not need to be permanent. If you anticipate or find yourself unable to work due to a medical condition, and it lasts (or is expected to last) at least 12 months — then you can apply for SSDI. If you are able to eventually return to work, then all the better. During the time of your medical illness, treatment and stabilization — whether that lasts 1-2 years, 3-4 years or longer — you can always explore the opportunity of returning to work. The SSDI program has been available for decades now, providing vital support for individuals who experience cancer, stroke and other medical issues that require them to stop working for a period of time.

No. 3: You can receive free help to return to work, whenever you’re ready. One of the lesser known features of Social Security’s disability program is the Ticket to Work Program, which offers free assistance, support and services for anyone receiving SSDI benefits. Ticket to Work provides for disability beneficiaries to work with Social Security-authorized Employment Networks (EN) that assist in every aspect of returning to work — from skills assessment to job searching to interview preparation.

No. 4: You are protected when you start back to work again, continuing to receive both SSDI and your earnings from work. “Ticket to Work allows beneficiaries to earn money and keep their SSDI monthly payments while they attempt to return to work,” said Diane Winiarski, Director of Allsup Employment Services. “And as a disability beneficiary, you are immediately eligible for this voluntary program.” Its protections include Medicare coverage for up to 93 months and suspension of Continuing Disability Reviews by Social Security.

This combination of benefits for American workers through the SSDI program, including monthly disability income and free services to help them return to work, has never been more relevant for the U.S. economy, Winiarski added. “In some ways, this coordination of monthly income and return-to-work help is perfectly positioned to help U.S. workers for a time like this, when people are experiencing long-term illness — and an unknown timeline for their recovery and return to work.”

Learn more at allsup.help/workafterCOVID.