When Are Alcoholism, Drug Addiction Considered Disabilities?
Questions of Accommodation
By Trevor Brice, Esq.
As we move out of the COVID-19 era, employees are struggling more frequently with drug and alcohol addiction. As such, it is important for employers to know that alcoholism and drug addiction can qualify as disabilities under federal and Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws.
If an employee suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction, the employer could be exposed to liability for discriminating against that employee or failing to grant the employee a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s alcoholism or drug addiction. However, alcoholism and drug addiction do not qualify as disabilities in all circumstances.
Alcoholism and Drug Addiction as Disabilities
Despite the possibility that alcoholism or drug addiction can qualify as legal disabilities, employers do not have to tolerate employees who are drunk or under the influence on the job. As such, employees cannot excuse being under the influence at work by claiming that they suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction.
Furthermore, employees cannot request to be drunk or under the influence at work as a reasonable accommodation for alcoholism or drug addiction. In these circumstances, the employee would not be a ‘qualified’ alcoholic or drug addict that would meet the definition of disability under the ADA. Consequently, the ADA does not cover those who are currently engaging in use of illegal drugs or alcohol.
In addition, an employee who is an alcoholic or drug addict can lose their qualification as a disabled individual due to low performance, as the ADA specifically provides that an employer can hold a drug-addicted or alcoholic employee to the same standards and behaviors as other employees. However, a high-performing alcoholic or drug-addicted employee can be qualified under the ADA if the employee is no longer engaging in illegal drug use or alcohol.
Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA
Reasonable accommodations for employees who are recovering alcoholics or drug addicts can include seeking time off for inpatient treatment; time off to undergo outpatient treatment, including methadone clinics; or being excused from work events that involve alcohol. However, qualified alcoholics and drug addicts do not necessarily need to be granted accommodation every time they ask.
For example, if a drug-addicted employee requests a reasonable accommodation in response to discipline for unacceptable performance or conduct, the employer does not have to grant that accommodation if the low performance is attributable to the current use of drugs.
However, if the low performance is due to alcohol, and the employee specifically notes this in her accommodation request, it is the employer’s responsibility to engage in an interactive dialogue to determine whether or not the requested accommodation is reasonable. Absent undue hardship, the employee may have to grant the employee’s reasonable-accommodation request, such as a modified work schedule to enter treatment or to attend an ongoing self-help program.
However, another wrinkle presents itself when the reasonable accommodation is in response to a court order for an alcohol- or drug-related offense. As a recent court case (Mueck v. La Grange Acquisitions, L.P.) notes, employers do not have to grant a requested accommodation of leave in relation to a court-order DUI for a recovering alcoholic.
Further, the employer can offer the employee a “firm choice” or “last-chance agreement,” in which the employee can be terminated for future poor performance or misconduct resulting from drug or alcohol addiction. The agreement will normally state that the employee’s continued employment is conditioned on the employee’s agreement to receive substance-abuse treatment and refrain from further use of alcohol or drugs.
When an employer is determining whether an accommodation for disabled employees is reasonable, it is a difficult task in and of itself. When the question becomes whether the employee is actually disabled due to current or past alcohol or illegal drug use, the question for the employer becomes even harder. If an employee is seeking a questionable accommodation request for alcoholism or drug addiction, it is prudent to seek out representation from employment counsel.
Trevor Brice is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.