COVID-19 Relief and Assistance
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many in our IBD community are facing new challenges. Depending on your situation, you may be wondering:
How can I return to work safely?
How can I navigate work and new COVID-19-related caregiving needs?
How can I deal with unemployment?
What if I can no longer work?
There are new and expanded federal programs (as well as many state and local programs) designed to provide support during the pandemic. Below, we've compiled key information on programs and resources to help you navigate through this uncertain time. With the COVID-19 situation constantly changing, we will continue to make updates as needed.
Workplace protections (ADA) | Employee Paid Leave Rights (FFCRA) | CARES Act | Applying for unemployment | Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) | Supplemental Security Income (SSI) | Employer-based disability insurance
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a contagious infection that can be easily spread in the community. As such, it presents significant challenges to workplace safety.
Both employers and employees have questions about how to ensure health and safety at work while also respecting medical privacy and anti-discrimination rights. It's important to understand your rights regarding health issues and the workplace.
Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and IBD
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) is a civil rights law designed to provide important workplace protections for people with disabilities. The ADA defines disability as a mental or physical impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” or has done so in the past.
A 2008 amendment to the ADA re-defined “major life activities” to include “major bodily functions including bowel and digestive functions.” This amendment improved the ability of employees with IBD to qualify for ADA protection, even if their IBD is in remission.
Note: A diagnosis of IBD does not automatically qualify for ADA coverage. Coverage depends on how IBD may be limiting or has a history of limiting one or more major life activities.
How does the ADA help with IBD and COVID-19?
The purpose of the ADA is to empower employees to obtain ‘reasonable accommodations’ that enable them to continue working without causing an employer ‘undue hardship.’ For example, employees with bowel or digestive disorders might request moving to an office closer to a bathroom or switching to telework as a 'reasonable accommodation,' depending on the specific workplace and type of work.
Note: You can visit JAN (the Job Accommodation Network) to learn more about the ADA and gastrointestinal disorders.
Having inflammatory bowel disease does not increase the risk of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 or developing COVID-19.1 However, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who take certain immunosuppressive medicines may be at higher risk for more severe disease if they do get the virus. As a result, JAN has suggested that employees with an underlying impairment who take an immune-suppressing medication may be eligible to seek “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA to reduce their contact with the public. Such accommodations might include wearing a mask, installing a glass shield, increasing options for telework, or a combination of strategies, depending on the job specifics.
ADA and Medical Confidentiality
Employees are under no obligation to disclose any disability or medical history to employers unless they are seeking reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Any medical information shared with employers must remain confidential.
You and your physician may be required to provide written documentation to support any requests for workplace accommodations. You can download or use our sample draft letter for guidance.
More information on COVID-19 health and workplace issues
The Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) Commission enforces workplace anti-discrimination law including the ADA. The EEOC has updated their pandemic guidelines to incorporate specific information regarding COVID-19.
Below, you'll find examples of balancing the need for workplace safety with the medical privacy rights of employees:
- Because of the highly contagious nature of SARS-CoV-2, an employer is entitled to ask employees who call in sick or report feeling sick at work whether they have any COVID-19-related symptoms. Any medical information disclosed to employers or obtained by them must remain confidential.
- Employers may require employees to adopt infection control practices (like handwashing) or wear personal protective equipment (i.e., masks). Employers during a pandemic health crisis (like this one) may also require a medical note, medical examination, or a specified symptom-free period before allowing employees to return to work.
- The employer has the right to protect the workplace from a ‘direct threat.’ An employer may legally direct an employee who is showing symptoms of COVID-19 to leave the premises since they could be viewed as a ‘direct threat.’ However, the employer cannot ask employees whether they have any medical conditions that might conceivably put them at greater risk of COVID-19.
Learn more about the Department of Labor’s pandemic guidelines.
Who is Covered under the ADA?
To be covered by the ADA, the employer must have at least 15 employees and the employee who is covered under the ADA must be able to do the work. The ADA also prohibits any job discrimination by state and local governments, government programs and activities.
Find more information about employment and IBD.
Families First Coronavirus Response Act: Employee paid leave rights (FFCRA)
In response to COVID-19, the Federal Government has responded with a new law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act: Employee Paid Leave Rights (FFCRA), that provides many employees with paid leave to cover COVID-19-related illness and childcare needs.
Paid sick leave
The FCCRA’s Paid Sick Leave provisions cover:
- Up to 80 hours paid sick leave for COVID-19 related illness or quarantine
- Up to 80 hours paid sick leave if you are caregiving for someone with COVID-19 related illness or quarantine
This paid leave benefit applies to employees who work for employers covered under this act who meet any of the following criteria:
- You are quarantined or isolated because of federal, state or local guidelines or guidance from a health care provider
- You have one or more COVID-19 symptoms and are awaiting diagnosis
- You are caring for someone who meets the criteria above
Paid leave for child care
The FFCRA’s Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act also expands the Family and Medical Leave to provide up to 12 weeks job-protected paid leave if the employee is caring for a child whose school is closed or whose childcare is unavailable because of COVID-19.
This paid leave expansion under the FFCRA is limited to COVID-19 related issues. This is different from the regular Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons. Learn more about the FMLA.
Note: Your group health insurance coverage through work will be maintained while you are on leave.
Who is covered under the FFCRA?
The paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave provisions of the FFCRA apply to certain public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees.
Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from the requirement to provide paid leave due to school closings or childcare unavailability if the leave requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business.
Note: These programs are in effect through December 31, 2020 unless extended through additional legislation.
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES)
Millions of people have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is a massive bill that addresses many topics (including employment, health care, business, and education). Here we focus on how the CARES Act expands the duration, benefits, and eligibility of unemployment insurance.
The CARES Act:
- Extends the number of weeks a person can be on unemployment by an additional 13 weeks. For example, if your state provides 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, the CARES Act extends that benefit for an additional 13 weeks, for a total of 39 weeks. The purpose is to provide extended benefits to workers who have already exhausted their unemployment benefits during periods of high unemployment. (Note: Some states have chosen to add an additional 7 weeks of extended benefits during periods of high unemployment; in these states, qualified people may receive up to 20 additional weeks of unemployment coverage.) Note: This benefit ends on Dec. 31, 2020 unless extended through additional legislation.
- Temporarily adds $600 per week to the state benefit amount (Note: This benefit ends on July 31, 2020).
- Waives any waiting period so people can apply and receive benefits as quickly as possible (Note: This waiver ends on Dec. 31, 2020 unless extended through additional legislation).
- Offers funding for states to provide short-time compensation for individuals who have not lost their jobs, but had their hours reduced. States must agree to participate in this program (Note: This program ends on Dec. 31, 2020 unless extended through new legislation).
- Expands unemployment eligibility to include self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors, and people who haven’t worked long enough to meet the usual benefit requirements under state or federal programs. These are categories not usually covered by unemployment benefits (Note: this is a new government benefit, and delays in implementation have been reported. Benefits will be retroactive to whenever your job situation changed).
The CARES Act also allows states considerable flexibility to expand their definition of ‘unemployed.’ States may, for example, choose to pay unemployment benefits for workers at businesses that are temporarily closed or to workers who are quarantined or temporarily stopped working due to exposure to COVID-19.
Find current guidelines for your state’s unemployment insurance program
How to apply for unemployment
To receive unemployment benefits, individuals should apply for unemployment in the state where they were working.
States are responsible for implementing the new unemployment duration (13 weeks) and providing the additional $600 to the claimant at the same time as the regular state benefit check. Please note that the checks may be sent separately. More information on filing for unemployment can be found on the Department of Labor’s website.
Note: There have been many reports of people experiencing delays in accessing these programs. Be persistent.
What if I am unable to work?
If you are unable to work, you may be eligible for federal or employer-sponsored financial relief programs.
There are two federal programs administered through the Social Security Administration that provide benefits to people unable to work.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
Social Securing Disability Insurance is a federal benefits program for people with long-term disability that pays benefits to you and certain members of your family if you are 'insured,' meaning that you worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes.
Who is eligible for SSDI?
People between the ages of 18 and 64 who have a severe medical condition that is expected to last 12 months or longer or result in death and which prevents them from working. Applicants must also meet certain criteria based on recent work experience and work history.
How to apply
You can apply online here, or call the Social Security Office at (800) 772-1213. This national line is available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Social Security offices have been closed to the public because of COVID-19. Once offices re-open, you will also be able to make an appointment with your local Social Security office. Find your local office here.
Tips for applying:
- Obtain your medical records as soon as possible. Be sure to contact all of your health care providers;
- List all medical conditions, including physical and mental conditions; help them see the ‘total picture’ of how your medical condition is impacting your ability to work;
- Do not sugarcoat; your aim is to provide an honest representation of your overall capacity to work (not what you can do on your best days).
SSDI, Medicare and Medicaid
Most people who qualify for SSDI are also eligible for Medicare after a 24-month waiting period.
Medicaid is a federal-state jointly funded health insurance program for low income people. Each state has their own eligibility requirements (including income limits). You do not need to wait 24 months before applying for Medicaid; you can do that immediately. If you are eligible for Medicaid, your coverage may continue even after you also start receiving Medicare.
Assistance in applying for SSDI
Speak first to a Social Security staff person to be sure you understand what documentation you need to file for a claim. Application requires several pieces of information, including your work history, medical history, your Social Security statement (which is sent yearly to everyone) and other personal information.
Note: People are advised to start the process as soon as you become disabled, as the process can be cumbersome and time-consuming.
If you need additional assistance with filing or contesting a claim (in the event that you are turned down), here are two reliable resources:
- The Patient Advocate Foundation is an excellent resource for many areas, including how to navigate SSDI. Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis are among their covered diseases.
- The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives is a specialized bar organization of attorneys and legal advocates who represent SSDI and SSI applicants during any adjudication period. Their website includes useful information about the process and your rights.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program pays benefits to low-income disabled adults, children, and senior citizens who have limited resources and who are unable to work.
Who is eligible for SSI?
SSI benefits are available to low income disabled adults who haven’t worked long enough to qualify for SSDI, low-income disabled children, and adults 65 and older without disabilities who meet the income criteria.
This link will take you to the Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool. This brief survey can, help you find out if you are eligible for SSI or other benefits. (See also more detailed information on SSI Eligibility Requirements.)
Once Social Security offices re-open to the public, you can also schedule an appointment with a local Social Security office to file an application. Call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday or contact your local Social Security office.
SSI, Medicare and Medicaid
In most states, SSI recipients are eligible for Medicare coverage within one month of receiving SSI benefits.
Medicaid is a jointly funded federal-state health insurance program for low income people including people with disabilities, adults 65 and older, and children. Each state has their own eligibility guidelines. Currently 32 states and the District of Columbia automatically offer Medicaid to people who qualify for SSI. Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and the Northern Mariana Islands will also provide Medicaid to SSI recipients but require filing a separate application.
Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia have different eligibility requirements for Medicaid (compared to SSI); applicants must file a separate application.
Can people still work if receiving SSDI or Social Security?
Yes. Special rules allow people with disabilities keep receiving monthly payments from SSDI and Social Security under certain conditions.
Employer-based disability insurance
Many employer-sponsored benefit programs include short-term disability (STD) and long-term disability (LTD) insurance. Both types will pay a percentage of your salary for a period of time. Check with your employer to find out what, if any, disability benefit options are available to you.
Short-term Disability Insurance (STD)
STD will pay 40-70% of your salary for a specified period of time if you are suffering a non-work-related illness or injury and are unable to perform your job. Policies vary greatly in length of coverage; most cover 3-6 months but some may cover shorter periods and last up to 52 weeks.
Long-term Disability Insurance (LTD)
LTD also covers a percentage of salary (often 50-60%), which will continue until age 65 OR your retirement age under Social Security OR until you are able to return to work.
LTD can be used after you’ve exhausted STD if you are still disabled.
Tips for Applying for LTD
Your approval hinges on proving how your condition prevents you from working. Your insurance company will want to understand the ways your symptoms impair your ability to work in your occupation.
- Talk to your doctor about the frequency and severity of your symptoms, and how they impact your ability to work
- Document your inability to work
- Provide objective medical evidence: medical records that document physical symptoms, lab tests, and imaging studies
- Provide adequate proof that you are complying with all treatment recommendations from your doctor(s) and your insurance company
If you need additional assistance or have questions please reach out to the IBD Help Center.
Last updated June 2020