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Do Employers Have to 'Accommodate' Alcoholic Workers?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on November 11, 2014 12:06 PM

Your business may not welcome the idea of alcohol-abusing employees as part of your workforce, but are you legally required to get them treatment?

That's what former Telemundo Chicago anchor Edna Schmidt is claiming after she was allegedly fired for being drunk on the air. According to TMZ, Schmidt says she was fired for being sauced, despite those at Telemundo being aware of her alcohol problems. She's now suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Does your business have to give alcoholics treatment before giving them the boot?

ADA and Alcoholism

Schmidt is claiming that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibited her firing, because alcohol dependence is a recognized disability. While the ADA does prohibit employers from discriminating against recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, it's not clear from news reports whether Schmidt was recovering from her alleged addiction; this may become an issue if the lawsuit proceeds to trial.

Here are some basic facts about the ADA and alcohol that employers need to know:

  • Employers can prohibit alcohol use and intoxication at work and to maintain an alcohol-free workplace;
  • Employees can be held to the same performance standards as other employees, even if their negative behavior is due to alcoholism; and
  • Alcoholism may be a covered disability, but it is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Regardless of whether Schmidt's alcoholism was considered a covered disability under the ADA, the EEOC advises that employers can still discipline or even fire alcoholic employees for being unable to perform their job responsibilities. Simply put, as long as your company disciplines alcoholics the same as other employees, the ADA does not prohibit firing misbehaving alcoholics.

Treatment and Accommodation

This doesn't mean, however, that your company does not have to offer any accommodation for alcoholics who wish to seek treatment. It may be considered a reasonable accommodation for an employer to modify working hours or to allow leave time for an employee to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or other rehabilitation programs.

But your company is not required to offer this kind of accommodation if an employee does not request it, nor is any company required to provide its own alcohol or substance abuse rehabilitation program. In fact, federal courts have agreed that employees fired for being drunk at work cannot retroactively ask for accommodation as a way of escaping termination or discipline.

Your business may wish to consider a compassionate way of disciplining employees who appear at work intoxicated, but the law does not require it.

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