Workplace Disabilities Part 1: Are There Workplace Protections for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction?

Former Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the University of Southern California last year after losing his position. At the time of his termination, Sarkisian was battling alcoholism. He claims the school discriminated against him for seeking treatment. Stories like Steve’s are not uncommon. Statistics collected by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency estimate 10,360,000 million Americans who battle addiction to drugs or alcohol are employed. Are there workplace protections for alcoholism and drug addiction?

Despite higher rates of absenteeism, poorer work performance and other factors that may be unattractive to employers, workers with substance abuse problems have workplace protections. That is because alcoholism and drug addiction are considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Are Workers Alcoholism or Drug Addiction Protected Under the ADA?

The ADA treats alcoholism and drug addiction a bit differently.

  • Alcoholism: Workers with alcoholism may be protected by the ADA so long as they can show they are substantially limited in a major life activity. However, employers are not obliged to tolerate drinking if it is against their policies. Alcoholic employees may be held to the same performance standards as other workers. Employers can provide reasonable accommodations to alcoholic employees, such as allowing time off for treatment or meetings.
  • Drug addiction: Workers suffering from addiction to illicit drugs may have protections under the ADA. However, they cannot actively be using illicit drugs.

In both cases, employers subject to the ADA cannot discriminate against workers solely for participating in drug or alcohol treatment programs. Employers subject to the ADA are not obligated to provide reasonable accommodations that create undue hardship.

There is a stigma against addiction and alcoholism in our society. Unfortunately, this stigma may sometimes harm workers who have long since recovered. Workers who feel they are being discriminated against for substance abuse should reach out to one of our Los Angeles employment law attorneys to explore possible legal options.

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