Firing Employees with a Drinking Problem

Alcoholism is the single largest and most economically destructive addiction in America as an estimated seventeen million Americans struggle with some phase of alcohol addiction at a cost to industry of $186 billion each year, according to a survey by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The business costs of alcohol abuse can include loss of productivity, damages caused by an alcoholic employee, and any treatment required to help an employee recover from their addiction. Federal and state laws dictate at what point an employer may terminate an alcoholic employee; any employer faced with the negative affects of alcohol in the workplace should consult an experienced attorney before taking any action.

Law Controlling Termination of Alcoholic Employees

There are two primary sets of laws which are immediately brought into play when discussing possible workplace protections for an alcoholic worker: (1) Americans with Disabilities Act, (2) Family Medical Leave Act. These federal laws, which might protect an alcoholic worker from being fired, can conflict with the so-called at-will doctrine that allows an employer to terminate an employee for virtually any reason. Because alcoholism can be considered a disease, an employer must consider the circumstances of the employee and any of the above mentioned laws that can preclude an at will termination depending on the situation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that an employer give reasonable accommodation to an employee who can demonstrate that they are substantially limited in a major life activity. In the case of employment, if an employee can show that their excessive and uncontrollable drinking prevents them from conducting the tasks necessary to their employment, then they may be due accommodation so that they can rehabilitate from their condition and keep their job. The ADA considers granting an employee appropriate leave to go through alcohol rehabilitation a sufficient and reasonable accommodation, and does not require that an employer tolerate relapse or consistent refusal to obtain help when given the appropriate chance. If an employer offers appropriate accommodation to an alcoholic employee, and the problems with the employee's alcohol abuse and resulting performance persist, than an employer can rightfully terminate the employee.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not permit an employer to terminate an employee for extended absences taken in order to obtain treatment for alcoholism. Although absence from work due to alcoholism is problematic to the employer, if an employee is attempting to access professional help in combating their disease, an employer cannot hold the absence against them. The ADA and FMLA provide this level of leniency in part to encourage individuals who are suffering from alcoholism to seek the treatment they need without worrying about being fired from work for doing so.

In addition, several states protect employees from being fired for poor performance due to alcoholism without reasonable accommodation. Employers in these states take simply firing workers with symptoms of alcoholism more seriously, they tend to take more action in encouraging the employee to get professional help. Finally, additional protections for an alcoholic employee might arise under a company’s own personnel policies. There are commonly employee assistance policies (or EAPs), that encourage employees to come forward with confidential requests for help that an employer should be aware of prior to terminating an employee.

Exception to the Law

Neither federal nor state law mentioned above protects employees who abuse alcohol while at work, or whose alcohol abuse prevents them from performing any part of their job. If an employee abuses alcohol while on duty, or has some necessary license or authorization (such as a driver's license) revoked due to their drinking then an employer may terminate them without the accommodations required by law. While controlling law and public policy tends to encourage an environment in which alcoholics are able to seek the help they need without concern over losing their jobs, there is no requirement that an employer tolerate alcoholism while an employee is on duty.

Getting Legal Help

Although time consuming and potentially costly, both an employer and an alcoholic employee’s best interests are served by the individual obtaining treatment. By providing alcoholic employees with reasonable accommodation to combat their disease, the law encourages treatment and promotes a better work environment. An employer faced with an alcoholic employee must be sure to provide them with the opportunity to seek the help they need, and only upon their refusal or failure to do so can they take action adverse to the alcoholic’s employment. Either party should consult an experienced employment attorney prior to taking any action.