Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace: How Do ADA Disability Laws Apply to an Addicted Worker?

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Answered by: Jessica, An Expert in the Law and Labor Policies Category
Don’t Let the Stigma of Drug or Alcohol Dependence Cloud Your Judgment - ADA Disability Laws Still Apply

When it comes to addiction, employers and insurers tend to forget that moral convictions about substance abuse don't carry over into the the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law mandates that addiction is a disease. That means we must find reasonable accomodations for workers who have recovered from addiction. Keeping a drug addicted worker out of the workplace is common sense, but it's not always legal. Here's what you need to know about addiction and the ADA rules for reasonable accommodation.



Addiction Common Among Working-Age Americans

Alcoholism is a serious concern for employers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in ten working-age adults die every year because of excessive alcohol consumption. The National Institute on Drug Abuse also tells us that the lives of over 100,000 individuals are lost to substance abuse every year. With a problem this prevalent, it’s likely your business will face the problem of substance abuse or addiction at some point.

Trucker Driver Fired for Alcoholism Diagnosis



In the case of Sakari Jarvela, a truck driver for Crete Carrier Corporation, we can see how the negative the stigma surrounding alcoholism can lead a company to make the wrong choices. Crete fired Jarvela six weeks after he was diagnosed with alcoholism. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations put Crete within its rights because a "current diagnosis of alcoholism" prevents the worker from being allowed to drive. But ADA disability laws mean he could have performed non-driving work, such as loading dock duties. Only the driver's failure to raise the ADA defense saved the company from trouble.

Disability for Alcoholism and the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. The Act identifies addictions like alcoholism as valid disabilities. Crete simply fired Jarvela, without offering him a job that carried less risk of harm to others. A current diagnosis of alcoholism would only justify firing a worker if non-driving positions were not available.

Disability for Drug Abuse under the ADA

Another case highlights how work accommodations could have drastically reduced the cost of a disability claim. Early in 2013, the court ruled in favor of anesthesiologist Dr. Julie Colby, who became addicted to Fentanyl, one of the drugs she administered to her patients. Colby’s disability insurer had denied her claim for disability, claiming that she was not disabled because she had been discharged from active treatment.

But drug abuse carries with it a strong potential for relapse. Colby argued that working in an environment where she would be exposed to this substance every day put her at risk, and her doctors agreed. The disability insurer failed to offer an accommodation until much too late in the court process. As a result, the court ruled that Colby should remain home and that the disability insurer should continue paying her lost wages.

Accommodations for Addicted Workers

For Jarvela, a loading dock or warehouse position could have kept him at work. Colby could have had an assistant charged with shadowing her at work to monitor her activities and reduce her chance of relapse. Addiction requires employers and insurers to think creatively about ways to help these employees stay at work. Not only does this cut the cost of claims, but it also offers a more humane solution that helps employees remain sober.

Employer’s Rights

Making accommodations does not excuse substance abuse, nor does it force the employer to accept such behavior. The ADA only protects workers after they have conquered their drug addictions. Courts generally see a worker who has only been sober for a few weeks as an active user in the case of drugs. Conversely, a single incident of relapse after a year of sobriety may not be enough to say a worker is no longer protected by the ADA.

In the case of alcoholism, employees remain protected even as active users, as long as they are not intoxicated while at work. But that does not protect them from disciplinary action for poor performance. At the same time, the employer must take care to treat an alcoholic employee with the same level of discipline given to non-alcoholic workers who commit the same offenses.

Think Before You Discipline

Employers must be careful when taking dismissive action because of substance abuse. Moral concerns and judgements naturally lead many of us to treat substance abusers with disdain, but doing so can violate worker protections. Employers should remain aware of ADA protections for addicted workers before taking disciplinary action.

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