Working with Alcoholics

Nora Akins

Alcoholism can qualify as a disability and disabled individuals are considered a protected class of employees. Balancing a protected alcoholic individual’s rights and enforcing work rules is not difficult as long as the employer knows the guidelines imposed by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Employers also need to keep state discrimination and leave laws in mind. It sounds complicated, but it is not.

Employers can write and enforce rules about drugs and alcohol in the workplace. The Ninth Circuit noted alcoholics are not exempt from reasonable work rules, including prohibiting possession and use of drugs and alcohol in the workplace. The Ninth Circuit went on to say employers are allowed to terminate employees for misconduct regardless of a disability. Employers need to remember a disability does not excuse an employee from meeting performance standards or complying with conduct rules.

Employers do not need to rescind warnings for conduct that occurs before the employer knows of the disability. The EEOC agrees and provides an example of an alcoholic using alcoholism as an excuse for tardiness. When the employee reached her final warning, she admitted to her uncontrolled drinking and plan to seek treatment. The EEOC does not condone an accommodation to allow the drinking, such as a modified schedule due to the ill effects of alcohol. However, the employee may be eligible for a leave to seek inpatient treatment and/or a modified schedule to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or other outpatient treatment under the FMLA or ADA.

Learning an employee is an alcoholic as a result of a performance or conduct issue is enough to trigger the interactive process. Employers are required to initiate an informal dialogue with the disabled individual to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential accommodations that could circumvent those limitations. Courts disagree whether alcoholism should automatically be considered a disability. The argument is whether or not the disease substantially limits a major life activity.

Examples of reasonable accommodation for an employee with alcoholism include time away from work to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, inpatient rehabilitation and perhaps a transfer to a less stressful position. Employers may require a healthcare provider substantiates the need. Employers do not need to repeat failed accommodations.

Employers cannot hold an employee with a disability to a higher standard than employees in similar situations. The EEOC and the ADA prohibit discriminating against an individual with a disability. EEOC provides this example of an ADA violation: A supervisor reprimands an employee known to be a recovering alcoholic who reports to work late when his tardiness is no worse than others who receive no reprimand.

Employers need a compelling reason to drug-test. Post-incident drug and alcohol tests are common in several industries. OSHA believes such required testing discourages employees from reporting injuries. As a result, effective January 1, 2017, post-incident testing should be limited to situations which the employee’s behavior may have been impaired and likely to have contributed to the incident. However, the employer is allowed to have a blanket policy if it is required under their state workers compensation laws or other federal or state law.

Employers can still enforce work rules when they understand and comply with these regulations. These laws are ensuring employers to treat employees as individuals and with respect.

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management focuses on employer compliance and employee performance by providing management training and refining human resource systems; she can be reached at 873-1735 or

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