Is Alcoholism A Disability?

Alcoholism can be considered a covered disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). An employer may not discriminate against an individual based on a history of alcoholism if that person has been rehabilitated and no longer uses alcohol.

In the absence of undue hardship, the employer must allow certain employees with a history of alcoholism to take leave to attend a rehabilitation program. An individual who returns to work and later has a relapse may also be protected under the ADA.

The ADA protects alcoholics who are in recovery and no longer using alcohol. An individual who is actively using alcohol is not protected by the ADA. Employers are not required to hire or continue employment of an individual who is actively using alcohol.

In addition to the protections provided by the ADA, the Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) protects an eligible employee from being fired for taking leave to attend a rehabilitation program. The FMLA provides eligible employees with unpaid, job-protected leave each year for up to 12 weeks to address serious health conditions. Alcoholism rehabilitation and treatment for alcoholism that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment may be considered a health condition under the statute.

Reasonable Accommodations For Employees With Alcoholism

To qualify for protection under the ADA based on alcoholism, the employee must be a “qualified individual with a disability.” A qualified individual with a disability must satisfy the job-related requirements and be able to perform the essential functions of the job “with or without reasonable accommodation.”
When an employee with a history of alcoholism requests reasonable accommodations to enable the employee to perform his or her job, the employee and employer engage in what is called the “interactive process.” During this meeting, or series of meetings, the employer and employee discuss the accommodations that are possible, including relaxing certain rules.

One example is allowing an employee to make personal phone calls to his “sponsor” although a rule prohibits personal phone calls during working hours. Another reasonable accommodation would be a modified work schedule or leave of absence to enable the employee to attend rehabilitation or another program.
Reasonable accommodations for an individual with alcoholism disability depend on the specific limitations caused by the disability.

Alcoholism in the workplace

Employers can hold employees with alcoholism to the same rules governing work performance and conduct that apply to all employees. The employer need not excuse behavior that is not tolerated by other employees such as excessive absenteeism, lateness, insubordination, or safety violations. Even if the offending conduct arises from the employee’s alcoholism, the employee may be subjected to the same disciplinary action as other employees.

However, an employer cannot selectively enforce a rule against an alcoholic employee. If an employer regularly tolerates lateness of other employees, the employer cannot use lateness as an excuse to reprimand or fire a recovering alcoholic. It would violate the ADA if the employer holds an alcoholic employee to a different and stricter standard than other similarly situated employees who do not have a disability.

As to the employee’s continued employment, under the ADA, the employer must keep the job open while the employee is on leave unless the employer can show undue hardship to the business. The employee must be permitted to return to the same position if he or she can perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation. If the employee can no longer perform the job functions, in the absence of undue hardship, the employer must reassign the employee. The FMLA provides that it is the right of the employee to return to his or her same position or to an equivalent one.

Your rights, and the employer’s responsibilities, under the ADA and FMLA can be complicated. If you have questions about entering a rehabilitation facility to address your alcoholism or returning to work, contact an experienced employment attorney. Murphy Law Group focuses exclusively on employment law and represents employees in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Email us at murphy@phillyemploymentlawyer.com or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.