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People with Substance Use Disorders May be Protected from Discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Posted December 18, 2019
12:03 pm

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) gives limited protections to workers with substance use disorders involving drugs and alcohol.

The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, government services, and public places. If a substance
use disorder like opioid addiction limits a major life activity, it may be a disability covered by the ADA.

An alcoholic or recovering drug user may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation from their employer based on their substance use
disorder. Reasonable accommodations are changes at work that allow a person with a disability to do their job. Reasonable accommodations for people with substance use disorders may include an alternative work schedule to allow for AA meetings, or a leave of absence so an employee can receive addiction treatment. Workers who need reasonable accommodations to do their job must ask their employer for them. The Act does not protect a worker whose substance use disorder poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

But there are big differences in how the ADA treats substance use disorders compared to other disabilities. One important difference is that the ADA allows employers to discipline workers for job performance or behavior problems caused by their substance use disorder (for example, intoxication, tardiness or missed work). Employers can also prohibit workers from using alcohol or drugs on the job and can test workers for illegal drug use and fire them based on positive results.

The ADA also treats people who use illegal drugs differently than people who use alcohol. The Act only protects former drug users, not people who “currently” use. It is different for alcohol users. The ADA may protect alcoholics even if they currently use alcohol.

A worker who believes their employer is discriminating against them because of their substance use disorder should file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. More information about how to file a discrimination complaint is available at https://www.eeoc. gov/employees/charge.cfm.

This article was written by Michael S. Russell and appeared in The Alert: Volume 35, Issue 3. 

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