ADA alcoholism: Breaking the stigma and finding support

Creating an accessible and equitable work environment for employees with disabilities is essential for businesses. Not only is it simply the right thing to do, but it’s also legally required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Understanding which health conditions the ADA covers can be confusing for employers. This is especially true for issues like alcoholism and substance abuse. The law maintains a broad definition of disabilities. This accounts for the wide range of disabling conditions. It also accounts for the fact that medical conditions impact each person differently.

Are you wondering how to navigate an ADA accommodation request for alcoholism? Explore the key details below. Understand your rights and responsibilities as a business owner or employee.

What Is The Americans With Disabilities Act?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law. It protects individuals with disabilities. These protections apply in the workplace and beyond. Employers may not discriminate. This includes discrimination against applicants or employees with disabilities. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. This helps them complete the essential functions of their roles.

Reasonable accommodations modify the work environment or work processes. This helps employees with disabilities. They can complete tasks. They can also enjoy equal employment privileges. Businesses must make accommodations. The exception is if doing so would place an undue hardship on the employer.

Is Alcoholism Covered By The Americans With Disabilities Act?

Alcoholism and substance use disorders as a whole can be recognized as a covered disability under the ADA. Those with a history of addiction who are in recovery from alcoholism (regardless of how long they’ve been sober) may also be protected under the ADA.

The ADA defines an individual with a disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a history or record of such an impairment, or others perceived as having such an impairment. People suffering from alcoholism and those recovering from alcoholism typically do meet this definition. The use of alcohol without an actual or perceived condition, such as alcoholism, however, is not inherently protected.​​

Can Employees Be Fired For Misconduct Related to Alcohol Use?

Yes, employees may be fired for misconduct related to their alcohol addiction or use. Courts have continuously held that terminating or disciplining an employee for misconduct related to alcohol or substance use does not constitute disability discrimination.

In both Labrucherie v. Regents of the University of California and Maddox v. University of Tennessee, the courts held that the termination of an employee in connection with a drunk driving arrest did not constitute discrimination under the ADA. In Labrucherie, the court noted that employers may terminate employees for misconduct stemming from a disability, not for the disability itself.

Similarly, in Flynn v. Raytheon Co, an employee who had broken their employer’s alcohol policy requested a belated reasonable accommodation under the ADA, seeking an exemption or adjustment to the policy to avoid discipline. The court ruled in favor of the employer. The court noted that the ADA allows businesses to “require employees not to be under the influence of alcohol or engage in the illegal use of drugs at the workplace.

The ADA protects employees from discrimination. This discrimination is based on their condition. The ADA does not protect employees from the consequences of negative behavior. This behavior stems from their alcoholism. Employers can still address violations of workplace policies with employees. These violations include alcohol policies, attendance policies, and harassment policies. Employers can also address violations of other workplace guidelines. Disciplinary action may be taken.

Considerations for Employees Requesting ADA Accommodations For Alcoholism

Disclosing alcohol addiction or dependency can be intimidating for employees.A massive stigma surrounds alcoholism. Employees may fear judgment. They may also fear adverse treatment. This can occur when discussing alcoholism at work.

Here are a few things to keep in mind while navigating the process:

Accommodations Are Available at Every Stage of Alcoholism

ADA accommodations are available for current or recovered alcoholics. You don’t need to quit drinking before you request an accommodation. There is no time limit on how long you can request accommodations. You can request accommodations after you enter sobriety.

For instance, many people like to remain active in AA to support their continued recovery and to engage in a community with shared life experiences. The ADA allows for scheduling adjustments if a recovering alcoholic needs to leave early on certain days to attend meetings.

It’s important to note this: The ADA protects people actively using alcohol. However, the ADA does not cover people currently using illegal drugs. The ADA covers those recovering from illicit drug use. It generally does not cover those actively using illegal drugs. It also does not cover those misusing prescription drugs without a valid prescription. Alcoholism and drug addiction often co-occur. Therefore, employees seeking reasonable accommodations should carefully consider their disclosure. They should think about the full extent of their substance use.

It’s best to request accommodations before an issue arises

You typically cannot request accommodations retroactively to avoid discipline for policy violations and misconduct. Employers will likely respond more positively. They will also be more open-minded. This happens if you speak to them before your alcohol use causes an issue. Such issues include misconduct or poor job performance.

Alcoholism is often a co-occurring disorder

Other physical or mental conditions commonly co-occur with alcohol and drug use. These conditions include depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Sometimes, these conditions even cause alcohol and drug use. Consider this when you make your accommodation request. You may be entitled to a broader range of accommodations. This is based on the additional conditions.

Some employees may feel more comfortable broaching the topic of their accommodation needs differently. They might lead the conversation with a less stigmatized co-occurring disorder. They could then weave in alcoholism. Many employers are becoming more supportive and vocal about mental health. Unfortunately, many people still see addiction as more taboo.

Employers may request a last-chance agreement

A last chance agreement is an agreement. The employee and employer make this agreement. It explains the expectations and conditions of continued employment. An employer often requests it. This often happens after an incident of alcohol-related misconduct or a failed drug or alcohol test.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and courts have generally ruled reasonable last-chance agreements allowable and consistent with employees’ rights under the ADA. However, as with any critical contract or document, employees should read it thoroughly. Also, they may want to consult an attorney if they have concerns before signing it.

Report Any Potential Discrimination and Seek Legal Assistance

You can report discrimination based on a disability to the Department of Justice or EEOC. It’s also helpful to consult an attorney if you feel that you have been discriminated against or terminated wrongfully based on alcoholism.

Reasonable Accommodations for Alcoholism

ADA accommodations are offered on a case-by-case basis while considering the individual employee’s essential duties and support needs. Here are some potential accommodations for employees dealing with alcoholism.

Alcoholic employees often don’t want to disclose their drinking problems. They do this until they are ready to get help. Treatment typically requires time off or scheduling adjustments. The ADA considers time off and shift adjustments reasonable accommodations. Employers generally deem allowing schedule adjustments reasonable. This includes leaving early for counseling or alcoholics anonymous meetings.

Employees may also require a more extended leave of absence for an inpatient alcohol treatment program. In these cases, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) typically provides the employee with twelve weeks of unpaid leave. The employee’s rehabilitation program might run longer than 12 weeks. It might also not qualify for FMLA leave. If so, the ADA can grant additional time off. This time off is for continued treatment.

Employers less commonly provide accommodations beyond scheduling modifications. This is because the law does not require them to adjust workplace alcohol policies. However, employers should be considerate of employees in alcoholism recovery. These employees may prefer not to attend work gatherings where alcohol is present, such as happy hours.

What Happens if an Employee’s Alcohol Use Creates a Safety Concern?

Employers need to balance two needs. They need to accommodate those dealing with substance use disorders. They also need to maintain a safe work environment for all employees. In some fields or job roles, an ongoing alcohol addiction may present a safety hazard. Hiring or accommodating alcoholics may worry employers. However, they cannot discriminate against them unless they pose a severe direct threat.

The ADA defines a direct threat as a significant risk. This risk is to the health or safety of others. A reasonable accommodation cannot eliminate this risk. The ADA allows employers to require employees not to pose this direct threat. This is true even if this requirement screens out an individual with a disability.

Employers should conduct an individualized assessment. They do this to determine if an individual with a disability would pose a direct threat. The assessment evaluates the individual’s ability to safely perform the job’s essential functions.

Factors to be considered in the evaluation include:

  • The expected duration of the risk
  • The likely severity of the potential harm
  • The likelihood of the potential harm occurring if the person is hired or retained
  • The imminence of the potential harm
  • The individual’s past experience in similar roles or situations
  • The opinions of medical professionals with expertise in the specific disability or who have direct knowledge of the individual.

Employees who abuse alcohol and drugs often create safety risks by potentially operating company equipment while impaired. Driving a company car while intoxicated or hungover can increase the risk of harm. Operating heavy machinery while intoxicated or hungover can also increase the risk of harm. This harm is to others.

Employers must conduct an individualized assessment. This assessment determines the significant risk of harm in specific job categories. It also determines whether the employer can make accommodations. Additionally, the assessment determines if hiring or retaining an employee poses too much of a direct threat.

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