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Addiction in the Workplace and the Americans With Disabilities Act

July 01, 2022

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act permits employers to ensure that the workplace is free from the illegal use of drugs and the use of alcohol. This means that the employer is granted the right to make sure that their workplace is free from any illegal substances or alcohol and that to do this, they are well within their right to fire or suspend anyone who is caught in violation of this.

However, the Americans with Disabilities Act provides limited protection for recovering drug abusers and alcoholics to guarantee that they are not discriminated against based on their disability.

This next excerpt is taken directly from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights website pertaining to the legal obligation that employers have in regards to employees who are addicts or alcoholics:

  • An individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs is not an “individual with a disability” when the employer acts on the basis of such use.

  • An employer may not discriminate against a person with a history of drug addiction but who is not currently using drugs and has been rehabilitated.

  • An employer may prohibit the illegal use of drugs and alcohol at the workplace.

  • It is not a violation of the ADA for an employer to give tests for the illegal use of drugs.

  • An employer may discharge or deny employment to persons who currently engage in the illegal use of drugs.

  • Employees who use drugs or alcohol may be required to meet the same standards of performance and conduct set for other employees.

  • Employees may be required to follow the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and federal agencies' rules for drug and alcohol use in the workplace.

It goes on to state that a person who is involved currently in illegal substance usage is not considered to be a person covered by the stipulations put forth in the ADA, but rather only people:

  • who have been successfully rehabilitated and who are no longer engaged in the illegal use of drugs;

  • who are currently participating in a rehabilitation program and are no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs; and

  • who are regarded, erroneously, as illegally using drugs

are considered to be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that an addict or alcoholic who is currently engaging in illegal substance usage or alcohol consumption has no legal protection in regards to their disease and that only people who have recovered from their disease can get legal protection.

This is essentially the same thing as saying that a person who suffers from diabetes but has not yet sought help for their illness can be fired simply for being diabetic, but once they seek treatment they cannot be fired.

Could you imagine if this precedent was held for other illnesses besides addiction and alcohol? Could you imagine if an employer called a diabetic into the office and told them, “Hey Tom, we’re going to have to let you go because you’re a diabetic.”? There would be public outrage to the 11th degree if this occurred, but this is apparently fine when it comes to alcoholism and addiction.

Granted a diabetic does not bring about the same destruction that an alcoholic or addict does, but nonetheless they both suffer from diseases, so why are they not covered in the same manner?

The reason is because of the cultural bias that we have in this country against addicts and alcoholics. Many people tend to believe that they are not really sick people but rather they are weak people, so even though The American Medical Association recognizes both addiction and alcoholism as diseases, the general public does not accept this fact.

Essentially the message that this sends is this. If you are an addict or an alcoholic and you haven’t yet received help for your condition, then we can fire you regardless of the fact that you are currently suffering from a disease, but if you disease appears to be in remission then you are fine and we cannot fire you on the basis of being an addict or alcoholic.

It is rather backward when you think about it because more than likely the person who is in recovery from their disease is not going to need legal protection at their job, but the person who is suffering from their disease probably will.

Before I get on my soapbox though, I do want to say that I understand that employers do need to protect themselves from the damage that alcoholism and addiction can cause. Because addiction and alcoholism are two of the only diseases that people adamantly deny help for it, it greatly complicates the situation.

For instance, a person who has cancer will 9 times out of 10 immediately seek professional medical help when their disease is made known, but addicts and alcoholics more than likely will not seek out help right away. In fact, I would venture a guess and say that maybe 1 out 10 addicts and alcoholics immediately seek help after they become aware of their disease.

So it is a tricky situation because on the one hand, the verbiage of this part of the ADA is discriminatory, whether that is the correct legal term doesn’t really matter because morally it is wrong, but on the other hand addiction and alcoholism are devastating to not only the workplace but to the person suffering from the disease. It would be difficult to justify keeping an active heroin user, who is missing work all of the time because of their addiction, on the payroll just because they are considered to be disabled. It would do harm to the business and it would probably do harm to the individual, but with that being said, by not legally covering addicts and alcoholics who are currently using, we send the message that we don’t care about addicts and alcoholics in this country unless they are currently sober.

While I don’t know the answer to any of this, or really what is right and wrong, I do know that thousands of people die every year because of addiction and I for one am sick of seeing this. I hate going on Facebook and seeing that another person I know has died from this disease and I know that we can do more as a society to try to help people.