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May 13, 2019

Could alcoholism be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Yes, alcoholism can be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC notes here that the ADA may protect a “qualified” alcoholic who can meet the definition of “disability.”An individual with a disability is a person who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Has a record of such an impairment; or
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment.

What is a “qualified” alcoholic? Someone who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation.

So, how do you accommodate alcoholism?

(Spoiler alert: It’s not much different than accommodating other disabilities.)

For starters, the individual may not require an accommodation at all. For example, an alcoholic who is many years sober is still an alcoholic. Presumably, that individual won’t need any help doing his or her job.

But, others may.

As with any other situation, the onus is on the person with the disability to identify the disability and request an accommodation. Then you have a good-faith, interactive dialogue to see what you can do to help. The goal is to figure out a way to help the person do his or her job without creating an undue hardship for the employer.

Some ideas:

  • Adjusting an employee’s schedule to allow him or her to attend AA to remain clean and sober.
  • Extended time off to go to an alcohol treatment facility. As long as that person doesn’t use that time off to imbibe, both the ADA and the Family and Medical Leave Act may protect that worker.

Allowing a person to drink at work? No. Indeed, most of you probably have policies prohibiting that sort of thing. So, alcoholic or not, you’re allowed to enforce your workplace rules. Just make sure that you do so evenly.

Do we have to fire an alcoholic who comes to work drunk?

Unless your drug and alcohol policy offers no second chances to anyone who comes to work under the influence, you have other options such as an EAP or a last-chance agreement.

Indeed, I was reading this recent federal court opinion about a police officer who struggled with alcoholism. His employer offered him the chance to get treatment. The two sides agreed on a treatment plan, but the police officer didn’t follow through. So, the police department ended his employment.

The officer sued for disability discrimination and lost, ultimately because he could not establish that the police department had treated other non-alcoholic employees who had alcohol-related incidents any better than it treated him.

Eric, can you recommend some resources on alcoholism at work?

Yes, I can.

This article originally appeared on The Employer Handbook.

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