The current opioid epidemic afflicting our nation brings up complex issues regarding drug or alcohol addiction, employee rights, and what constitutes a disability.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) generally protect employees with alcoholism or drug addiction (as disabled) if the employees can perform the essential functions of their jobs, even if they need a reasonable accommodation to do so. But if employees are unable to perform their job even with a reasonable accommodation, or if the employees are a threat to safety, then they are not protected under the ADA or MHRA. To qualify as disabled, an employee’s addiction must impair major life activities, such as walking, sleeping, or thinking. In other words, depending on the court you are in, alcoholism and drug addiction is not automatically considered a disability, but will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
So, how do you determine whether you are able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without a reasonable accommodation? To answer this question, it is helpful to consider some examples. First, a reasonable accommodation may mean giving an employee time off from work to seek treatment or allowing the employee to work a modified schedule to attend support group meetings. But being protected under the ADA and MHRA does not mean you cannot be disciplined or terminated for conduct related to your disability. For example, if your employer has a policy that alcohol is not allowed on the premises, you could be disciplined for bringing alcohol on the premises. Similarly, it may be appropriate for your employer to prohibit employees from being intoxicated at work. If you are regularly hung over and show up for work late or cannot complete assignments on time, you may be disciplined for poor performance. Put simply, even though these addictions are, under certain circumstances, considered disabilities, the law never gives employees a right to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol during work hours.
Once aware of an employee’s disability, the employer is legally obligated to make accommodations, unless it can demonstrate that the accommodation would cause undue hardship on the business. To determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation, the employer must engage with the employee in an interactive process to determine possible options. In reality, the question of whether an accommodation is reasonable depends on the circumstances and will vary depending on the specific employee’ s situation.
If you are disabled under the ADA or MHRA, your employer can still discipline or terminate you for reasons that are not related to your disability (so long as they treat similar employees who are not disabled the same). If your employer can show a legitimate reason for terminating you (i.e., poor performance, regular tardiness, violence at work, workplace misconduct), you are not protected merely because of your disability.
Many people with addictions are ashamed and do not tell their employer about their potential disability and need for accommodation. While this is a very personal decision and may be your best option, it could prevent you from getting the support you need at work to keep performing your job well. If your employer does not know about your disability, it will not know of your need for accommodation. For example, if you are embarrassed about going to AA meetings and leave work to attend without informing your supervisor, you may be disciplined or even terminated, despite the absence being related to your disability. These are deeply personal issues and it is important to know and understand your rights as they apply to your workplace.
If you have questions or concerns, or feel you have been discriminated or retaliated against because of an alcohol or drug related disability, we encourage you to contact an attorney who is fully versed about these matters and can provide professional counsel.
Halunen Law Partner Kaarin Nelson Schaffer is a formidable force. Comfortable in the courtroom and at the negotiation table, she represents employees who have experienced discrimination, harassment, retaliation and other illegal conduct in the workplace.