Managing an employee who is struggling with alcoholism or substance use disorder can be challenging for employers. While both conditions could be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), there are differences in how each condition is treated under the law.

Understanding these differences is essential for any HR professional in implementing a plan after discovering that an employee’s work performance or ability to work is being affected by alcoholism or substance use.

Alcoholism & the ADAAA

Under the ADAAA, a person may be considered disabled if the person can be classified as one of the following:

  1. Active Alcoholic – someone not in recovery and actively using alcohol.
  2. Recovered or Recovering Alcoholic – someone with a history of alcoholism but who no longer drinks, or someone in a rehabilitation program.

Alcoholism is not automatically considered a disability. An individual addicted to alcohol is considered disabled only when the condition is substantially limiting in at least one major life activity, which may include, but is not limited to, the ability to work.

Substance Use Disorder & the ADAAA

Who is covered? The ADAAA covers individuals who have completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program and are no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs. The statute also covers individuals erroneously regarded as engaging in the use of illegal substances while not actually engaging in such use. An employee is considered disabled as a result of having a substance use disorder only when the condition is substantially limiting in at least one major life activity.

Who is NOT covered? Current users of illegal substances are NOT covered under the ADAAA.

Potential Reasonable Accommodations for Recovering Addicts

As noted in our blog post that detailed the ADAAA’s interactive process, a “reasonable accommodation” is defined as assistance or a change to a position or workplace that accommodates employees with disabilities so they can perform their job without causing the employer undue hardship, such as significant difficulty or expense.

Recovering addicts may be entitled to the following reasonable accommodations:

  1. Employer-provided leave.
  2. Modified job schedule to attend self-help meetings.
  3. Job restructuring.

It is important to remember that an employer is not required to tolerate an employee’s alcohol or substance use at work, poor performance, poor attendance, or other misconduct.

Employers must also remember to treat as confidential any information or documentation related to an employee’s alcohol abuse or substance use disorder. Such information and documentation should be afforded the same confidential treatment afforded to any other medical documentation related to employees.

If you have questions or would like further information on managing employees with alcoholism or substance use disorder, feel free to contact the authors and subscribe to this blog for news, commentary and insights on the complicated and constantly changing labor and employment and employee benefits laws affecting employers.

Firm attorneys Bob Horton, Lymari Cromwell, Tim Garrett and Laura Mallory authored an article on this topic titled “Alcohol and Substance Use Disorder under the ADAAA,” that was published by HR Professionals on March 30, 2020. You can access the full article here.