When Alcoholism Threatens Your Job

Can you get fired for being an alcoholic? The answer to that question is hardly cut-and-dry. Federal law, corporate policy, corporate practice, and even corporate culture play a role in answering the question, “Can you get fired for being an alcoholic?” One thing is for sure: firing someone for alcoholism is a puzzle. Increasingly, society accepts the fact that alcoholism and drug misuse are a disease — substance use disorder. How does firing someone with an alcohol use disorder help us understand? With that in mind, alcoholic employee rights do exist, even in right-to-fire states. But with so many other factors to consider, the answer to “Can you get fired for being an alcoholic?” is not an easy one.

If you, or someone in your life, are experiencing alcoholism and need help, reach out to us now at (912)214-3867. We have experts who are happy to help you start a healthier life now.

America’s Drinking Problem

As stated by the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.4 million adults ages 18 and older had alcohol use disorder. About 7.9 percent of adults who had AUD in the past year received help. An estimated 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes. Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States behind tobacco and poor diet.

Besides the human cost, alcoholism hurts the economy, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, the most recent year figures were available. Alcohol misuse costs the United States $249 billion or about $2.05 per drink. Up to 77 percent of these costs were due to binge drinking. 

The $249 billion costs to the economy include health care expenses, law enforcement, and other criminal justice expenses and losses from a motor vehicle crash. However, the highest value of alcoholism came from losses in workplace productivity — 72 percent of the total cost.

Workplace and Alcoholic Employee Rights

Except for Montana, every state in the nation is a right-to-fire state. This means a company can fire an employee for no cause. In practice, state and federal laws and risk-averse control put some brakes on that practice. Two of the rules in question are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Passed in 1990, the ADA was put in place to prevent employment discrimination against people with disabilities. A company has to provide reasonable accommodations to people who are qualified to do a job. Adding a ramp or widening a door for a person in a wheelchair would not be considered unreasonable.

Over the years, the ADA placed various other conditions under its umbrella, including alcohol use disorder. What this means is that it protects you from being fired because of your alcohol addiction. For example, if your boss morally opposes alcohol, he cannot fire you.

Suppose an employee can show that extreme and uncontrollable drinking prevents them from conducting employment tasks. In that case, the employee may be due to a reasonable service to keep their job. If you need help battling addiction in the workplace do not hesitate to give us a call. Our specialists will help you begin the journey to sobriety.

ADA Accommodations for Alcoholics

An adjustment does not mean allowing alcoholic employees to come in late because of a hangover. As far as the government is concerned, appropriate aid for alcoholics provides them the opportunity and time to go through a rehab program. The employer doesn’t have to pay for the rehab.

To get that second chance at keeping your job, you must:

  • make your employer aware that you have a drinking problem
  • ask for an opportunity to get treatment
  • prove that your drinking problem makes it impossible to do your job

Employees with alcohol problems have no ADA protection if they don’t admit that they have a condition or refuse to seek help. In such cases, an employer can terminate the employee with the drinking problem for poor performance, absenteeism, or tardiness, just as they would any other employee.

There are other limits to the ADA’s protection. For example, the law does not require that an employer tolerate a relapse. If the problems with the employee’s alcohol abuse and job performance continue, an employer can fire the employee.

Remember, the employer’s only obligation is to make a “reasonable” accommodation. If the company deems that the time off for rehabilitation is too long or if the employee’s job is essential, the ADA likely will not protect the employee. Also, if an alcoholic employee exhibits lousy behavior at work, such as drinking on the job or assaulting co-workers while drunk, that can result in instant termination.

The Family Medical Leave Act

Going back to how long is too long to be on leave for alcohol rehab, the Family Medical Leave Act provides the best protection. Even if an employer thinks three weeks is too long, the FMLA calls the shots on this one. The FMLA does not allow an employer to terminate an employee for less than 12 weeks of unpaid absences. This gives the employee time for a three-month rehabilitation program.

However, employees with alcohol use disorder don’t receive blanket coverage from the FMLA. That’s because the act does not cover all employers. An employer must be at least moderate or mid-sized, with at least 50 employees working within a 75-mile radius, to fall under the FMLA.

So, if you work for a small company, your employers do not have to grant you a leave of absence.

Another caveat is that the employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months at an FMLA-covered business to be eligible for leave to receive treatment. Also, just as with the ADA, the employee must ask to use FMLA leave and provide proof or documentation of his alcohol use disorder. It’s important to communicate with your employer because you can’t get help unless you properly ask for it.

When the Law Doesn’t Protect Alcoholic Employee Rights

You can punish a worker for performance issues separate from his or her drinking problem. While having a disorder or condition does not, by itself, allow termination, employers can fire you for bad or inappropriate behavior, even if it occurred because of your medical condition.

For example, the law doesn’t protect employees who drink at work. There is no requirement that an employer must tolerate drinking while an employee is on the job.

Even if their actions began from their alcoholism, the ADA doesn’t protect employees who commit crimes at work, damage the employer’s property, or do other things that would support termination.

In another example, say you are getting help, but you can’t do an essential part of your job. Let’s say you’re a truck driver, but your alcoholism causes you to lose your license. The employer doesn’t have to keep people who can’t do what he hired them to do.

Also, The FMLA does not:

  • Prevent an employer from disciplining a worker for subpar work or inappropriate conduct not related to their alcoholism.
  • Stop an employer from firing a worker for shoddy work or unacceptable behavior resulting from their alcoholism/alcohol abuse disorder.
  • Afford any protection to workers who engage in illegal activity, are chronically late, vandalize company property, engage in overt insubordination, or any other activity that could be considered cause for termination.

Company Policy

Many large corporations have workplace drug and alcohol policies that they expect all employees to read. Obviously, these provide protection to the company, but also to the employee with an alcohol use disorder. Large corporations tend to be risk-averse, so they take steps and set policies that are in line with federal law. That’s a good thing for employees with a drinking problem. A corporate culture of taking care of their own also works in favor of an employee addicted to alcohol.

Cali Estes is a Miami-based certified drug and alcohol therapist. She works with companies and individuals dealing with substance abuse in the workplace. In an interview with Entrepreneur magazine, Estes encourages companies to have a workplace drug and alcohol policy that employees must sign.

What Companies Can Do

To help any employees who may have alcohol use disorder, Estes recommends that companies do four things:

1. Gather Resources

Check out local organizations that deal with alcohol and substance use disorders and find out if they have any educational materials or recommended resources. A company should also create a list of support groups, treatment facilities, and other resources. Since employers aren’t qualified to diagnose alcohol use disorder, they must make this list available to all employees.

2. Explore Insurance Coverage

Call your insurance company to determine what it covers and if it recommends resources in the community. Estes says that insurance coverage varies sharply from policy to policy. As a result, it’s important to know what insurance covers so employees can find a treatment program that fits their budget.

3. Consult a Lawyer

From setting your substance abuse policy to firing someone who’s used drugs on the job, Estes says you need to consult your attorney throughout the process of dealing with an addicted employee. You need to be sure your policy complies with state and federal employment laws. Also, any termination complies with those laws and protects a company from liability if the employee does damage while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

4. Take Action

While employers can’t make a substance use disorder diagnosis, they can spot telltale signs that an employee is an addict. Estes says the worst thing an employer can do is ignore the signs of substance abuse. If an employer sees an employee who shows common signs of alcoholism, the employer must address the issue. Managers can hold private conversations with the employee in which they review the company’s policy, express the employer’s concerns, and provide any treatment resources the company has gathered.

The Result

“Usually if their job is on the line, we can say, ‘If you don’t get some form of help, you’re going to get fired,’” Estes says in Entrepreneur magazine. “In states where that’s in compliance with the law, that usually works.”.

So, going back to the question, “Can you get fired for being an alcoholic?” The answer is yes, but the ADA and the FMLA offer some degree of protection. A qualifying employer must give you time to seek treatment.

Make the most of that second chance. Find a treatment center and build a support network that will help you prevent a relapse. If you relapse, you will probably lose your job. But with the right coping tools and support system by your side, this doesn’t have to be your fate. Call us today. We can help you get the treatment that you need.

Written by Janet Perez

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