Employee Rights: Employees who are alcoholic may be protected from discrimination under federal law.
The recent firing of University of Southern California football coach Steve Sarkisian for his alcohol related conduct brings to the forefront the impact that alcohol abuse has on the workplace. Employees with alcohol problems often exhibit poor attendance, excessive tardiness, erratic performance, and improper behavior that creates problems for the employee and the employer. Knowing how to handle an employee with an alcohol problem can be a tricky situation. Employers must be mindful that employees who are alcoholic may be protected from discrimination under federal law. In particular, courts have usually held that alcoholism is a covered disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Employee Rights, Alcoholism & ADA
What about labor laws? Here are 10 rules that employers should know to comply with the ADA when dealing with an employee who is an alcoholic or abuses alcohol:
1. Even though courts may determine that alcoholism is a covered disability, the law makes it clear that employers can enforce rules concerning alcohol in the workplace.
2. Employers may prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace.
3. Employers may prohibit employees from being under the influence of alcohol in the workplace.
4. The ADA is not violated by tests for illegal use of drugs.
5. Employers may hold an employee with alcoholism to the same employment standards to which the employer holds other employees even if the unsatisfactory performance or behavior is related to the alcoholism.
6. Employers may discipline, discharge, or deny employment to alcoholics whose use of alcohol impairs job performance or conduct to the same extent that such conduct would result in disciplinary action for other employees.
7. Employers may not discipline an alcoholic employee more severely than it does other employees for the same performance or conduct.
8. The duty to provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee under the ADA applies to employees who are alcoholics.
9. Reasonable accommodation for an alcoholic generally allows an employee to take a leave of absence to attend medical treatment.
10. The ADA does not require an employer to provide an alcohol rehabilitation program or to offer rehabilitation in lieu of disciplining an employee for alcohol-related misconduct or performance problems.
These rules should give employers confidence that they are not hamstrung by the law when faced with an employee who abuses alcohol in the workplace. This point is illustrated by the court’s decision in Maddox v. University of Tennessee. 907 F. Supp. 1144 (E.D. Tenn. 1994). In that case, the University of Tennessee fired an assistant football coach after his third arrest for drunk driving. Was there conflict, wrongful termination or discrimination? During the arrest, the assistant coach was combative and refused a Breathalyzer test. The employee claimed that he was discriminated against based on his alcoholism. More specifically, he claimed that his drunk driving was a result of a disability, namely, his alcoholism. The court held that the coach’s misconduct could be separated from his alcoholism and, therefore, the coach was properly terminated due to the misconduct.
Kenneth Winkler, a shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn, helps employers navigate the employment laws and regulations that govern the workplace.