Navigating alcoholism and addiction in the workplace

Dealing with an employee who is struggling with alcoholism or addiction is one of HR’s most difficult issues. It’s important to remember what you legally can, and cannot do when faced with this complex situation.

How the ADA treats alcoholism and addiction

Don’t make a delicate task even harder by running afoul of the ADA. Factors to consider:

Accommodation does not mean you can’t discipline someone who drinks or uses drugs on the job or comes to work impaired. You don’t have to accept substandard work or conduct. For the most part, accommodation will be to allow time for treatment or otherwise support the goals of treatment—for example, allowing a worker to decline assignments or obligations in places where alcohol is served.

You can’t discriminate against workers or applicants who have been, or are being, treated for alcoholism or drug addiction. However, the ADA specifically does not cover the use of illegal drugs; you are allowed to test workers for drug use, and discipline or terminate, or refuse to hire those who use drugs.

The ADA protects workers who don’t have disabilities but who are perceived as being disabled. Employers have lost ADA cases for being too quick to label employees as “alcoholics” or “drug users”—even with the best intentions.

Opioid crisis affects three out of four employers

Seventy-five percent of U.S. employers have been directly affected by opioids but only 17% feel extremely well prepared to deal with the issue, according to a survey released in March by the National Safety Council.

“The opioid crisis is truly encompassing nearly every aspect of American lives,” said Nick Smith, president and CEO of NSC. He said the survey “confirms that the No. 1 cause of preventable death is not just taking its toll on our home lives, but companies across the country are also grappling with the impact of this epidemic.”

For the first time in U.S. history, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a motor vehicle crash, according to NSC calculations. In fact, workplace overdose deaths involving drugs or alcohol have increased by at least 25% for five consecutive years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the survey findings:

  • Just half of the employers are very confident that their HR policies and resources are adequate to deal with opioid use and misuse in the workplace.
  • Only 60% of employers have policies requiring employees to notify their employer when they are using a prescription opioid.
  • 79% are not very confident that employees can spot warning signs of opioid misuse.
  • 41% of employers would return an employee to work after he or she received treatment for misusing prescription opioids.

Online resource To request a free National Safety Council guide to help employers manage opioid misuse at work, visit

Beware presumptions about alcoholism

Alcoholism may be an FMLA-covered serious health condition. If an employee returns to work after taking FMLA leave to rehab from a drinking problem, warn supervisors to check their presumptions about alcoholism.

Doing or saying the wrong thing could violate the FMLA, the ADA or both.

Recent case: Leslie had worked as a nurse for Warren County since 1992, always earning good reviews. She had never been disciplined for any workplace violations. Part of her job involved driving a county-issued car to conduct home health care visits.

In late 2011, Leslie took a short FMLA leave to seek treatment for de­­pression and alcoholism. She took a second leave in mid-2012 for further treatment.

Before returning to work, she was required to provide a medical certification showing she could perform the core functions of her job, which she obtained from her health care provider. Apparently not satisfied with the certification, her supervisor demanded a second exam. She got that, too.

Once she was back at work, she claimed her supervisor began micromanaging her, creating additional paperwork and subjecting her to new reporting requirements. She said another supervisor began making hostile comments about needing to get home and drink “three martinis” or have a “double Stoli.”

Soon, Leslie’s supervisor required her to take an involuntary medical leave, based on tremors and anxiety she was allegedly suffering from. The supervisor sent Leslie a letter telling her that during the involuntary leave, she hoped Leslie would obtain the appropriate care for her medical problems.

Instead, Leslie quit, claiming her supervisor had harassed her based on her disability and forced her out.

The court said she had a case, particularly since Leslie explained she couldn’t risk waiting to be fired and potentially losing her nursing license. (McNulty v. County of Warren, ND NY, 2019)