When Is Alcoholism a Protected Disability? When You Don’t Drunk-Drive the Snowplow.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alcoholism is a protected disability: an employee cannot legally be fired simply for being an alcoholic. But that protection does not grant alcoholics immunity from workplace performance standards; they can be fired for being intoxicated on the job—or otherwise falling short of expectations—like anyone else.

As articulated by the Chicago Employment Law Blog, alcoholism “has a special place in ADA law.”

The Cornell ILR School website has an excellent guide to this “special” issue. Interestingly, along with “full-blown” alcoholism, “binge”-style excessive drinking is also a protected disability:

Clinicians and researchers commonly divide drug and alcohol consumption into three levels or stages of use: use, abuse, and dependence. While the use of drugs and alcohol does not generally rise to the level of an impairment that constitutes a disability, abuse and dependence do. Drug and alcohol abuse is characterized by intensified, regular, sporadically heavy, or “binge” use, and dependence is characterized by compulsive or addictive use.

Drug and alcohol abuse and dependence are classified as treatable illnesses by both standard diagnostic medical manuals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Injuries, and Causes of Death (ICD-10).

(Emphasis added.)

As mentioned, being drunk on the job torpedoes alcoholism-as-disability protection. An Ohio municipal snowplow driver was fired last year for driving his snowplow drunk; he is suing for alcoholism discrimination, but the lawsuit might be heavy sledding: the EEOC “decided that there was no cause to believe actual discrimination had occurred,” according to AOL Jobs.

By contrast, the same article also mentions an older lawsuit that claimed disability discrimination based on alcoholism and succeeded:

In 1992, David White sued McFarland High School in Wisconsin, where he was a physical education teacher after for refusing to consider him for the school’s basketball coach position. The school was concerned about the “negative attention” that would come the school’s way as a result of White’s history of heavy drinking. He sued, and the school settled with McFarland for $50,000.

That case embodies exactly the kind of alcoholic disability protection that the ADA seeks; the stigma of substance dependence, unaccompanied by actual poor work performance, is insufficient, illegal justification for discrimination. The Chicago Employment Law Blog post, on the other hand, discusses a case more akin to the Ohio snowplow driver’s. A police officer was fired after causing a car accident while intoxicated: “He hired an Illinois employment lawyer to challenge his termination, claiming employment discrimination for his disability. Specifically, he claimed that the district failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation for his alcoholism.”

That argument failed, but employers are indeed required to reasonably accommodate those with alcoholism. The Cornell guide has a useful list of examples of potential accommodations, including “[r]estructuring a job to relieve an employee of ‘risky’ environments or tasks that may compromise recovery, e.g., expectations for socializing with clients or other em­ployees who are known to be heavy alco­hol users.” Furthermore, taking time off for medical treatment of alcoholism is legally provided for in the form of protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (more on that in a future blog post).

The Cornell guide makes a crucial point: “Many employers do not realize that the Ameri­cans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects individuals with drug and alcohol problems against discrimination in employment.” This area of employment law is not widely understood, but we at The Harman Firm pride ourselves on an up-to-the-minute understanding of relevant regulations. If you have any questions about disability discrimination, or you believe an employer treated you prejudicially, contact The Harman Firm today.