Addressing Alcoholism as a Disability | DCR Workforce Blog

Addressing Alcoholism as a Disability

What would you do as an employer, when a hitherto valued employee suddenly manifests a personality change and turns querulous instead of garrulous? Customer-facing employees could wreak havoc on the prospects of a business with such mood swings. In today’s fast-paced corporate world, it is difficult for result-oriented employers to adjust to such performance changes and suffer such employees. Alcohol in excess makes people behave uncharacteristically and its effects could result in performance issues and employer dissatisfaction. How can the employer address the issue and ensure that the employee performs to requirements?

Does ADA protect Alcoholism?

The sole purpose of ADA is to protect applicants and employees from being discriminated against for any physical or mental disabilities. The ADA creates legal liability for employers should they take a drastic decision and direct adverse action against a disabled person. The scope of ADA defines disability narrowly, while the courts have been known to apply its provisions using broader interpretations. Employers would be wise to avoid being caught in its wide net.

An employee is protected not only in the event of a present disability but also when there is a record of past disability or was earlier regarded as disabled. The ADA is focused more on determining if discrimination occurred than on verifying if the person is truly disabled. It condones performance at a lower standard without troubling itself to define any standard benchmark of performance. Any considerations of impairments to the person’s major life activity are not held to be of relevance or allowed to demand extensive analysis!

The ADA FAQs very clearly advise employers that alcoholics are protected under it if they are qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, unlike illegal users of drugs. So, savvy employers take precautions to avoid the mention of physical or mental disabilities in any performance-related discussions held with such employees to escape charges of discrimination.

Employer’s Rights

An employer may prohibit the use of alcohol at the workplace, and also take adverse action against the person in the following circumstances:

  • If the alcohol affects the performance or conduct of the employee in a manner which can be proved or substantiated.
  • If the person is unfit to discharge the demands of the duty on account of using alcohol.
  • Possesses or uses alcohol in violation of the workplace policies.
  • Fails to meet attendance requirements.

The employer may lose these rights, under the ADA, in case of:

  • A person who is in recovery from an alcohol problem
  • A person who is protected by state law or FMLA for substance abuse, which is considered a serious health condition which protects the users of illegal drugs also.

Where is the Catch?

With nearly 17.6 million adults in the United States being alcoholics or facing alcohol problems, it is necessary for employers to clearly understand the regulatory requirements in handling the work of an employee, who is known to be an alcoholic. It is possible that these employees report to work with a hangover or imbibe alcohol along with their lunch.

Employers can exercise various options in dealing with such employees. We discuss some of them here and would love to hear from you on any other options that you may have exercised to handle the issue successfully:

  • Option 1: Testing employees for alcohol use on grounds of reasonable suspicion is tricky and indecisive. By invoking the Reasonable Suspicion policy, if they have one in place, an employer may have a staff member tested for alcohol use at the workplace. The results may provide conclusive or contradictory evidence and mar the employer-employee relations. The smell of alcohol could have come off the person’s skin instead of breath, or the suspicious Monday morning late arrival/absenteeism could actually have a plausible explanation.
  • Option 2: Dealing with performance issues alone, without any reference to the disability may provide a great way to deal with the employee’s issues. By staying focused on the end-result, an employer could seek protection from accusations of having acted against a prohibited disability.
  • Option 3: Some employers refuse the subterfuge and prefer to get involved and offer help both with the substance abuse and performance issues. This involves obtaining a professional substance abuse evaluation to determine the employee’s fitness for duty and seek help with the alcoholism. The employer is sure to court trouble with this approach with an uncooperative employee as it establishes a clear record of the employer’s knowledge of the condition. It would easily establish any charges of discrimination, should the attempt fail and severance become the inevitable option. At the same time, successful employers would have gained a loyal employee who works twice as hard as ever, once cured of the addiction. This approach may also require he employer to provide some accommodation in responsibilities until the employee is back on track.
  • Option 4: Do nothing as long as the employee performs satisfactorily.

Need for Decisive Action:

Acting against alcoholism at the workplace is ultimately the employer’s choice, and requires careful assessment of the risks involved, like deterioration in interpersonal relationships and scope for abuse or even injuries to others at work or third parties. If such outcome should involve the employer in litigation for allowing it to happen, it could involve an equally tough punishment. It is better not to forget this aspect before choosing any one of the options.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.