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Disability Law and Addictions:
Questions and Answers for Employers Dealing with Addiction Issues in the Workplace

 

Q:        Is drug or alcohol use considered a disability?

A:        Drug and alcohol addiction is considered to be a disability.  Casual drug users or “social drinkers” are not considered to be disabled.

Q:        Who is protected under the law?

A:        Individuals who are in a drug or alcohol recovery program, or who have been through a drug or alcohol recovery program are protected under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (RCW 49.60). 

Q:        Are current users of drugs or alcohol protected under the law?

A:        Current users of illegal drugs are not protected under the law.  However, alcoholics who currently drink alcohol are generally considered to be protected under the law. 

Q:        What is considered to be use of an illegal drug?

A:        This is the use of any illegal drugs, as well as illegal use of prescription drugs. 

Q:        How do I determine if someone is a “current user” of an illegal drug?

A:        The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines this to mean that the use of an illegal drug occurred recently enough to justify the employer’s reasonable belief that drug use is an ongoing problem.  Generally, periodic use during the weeks and months prior to the determination is enough.  However, there is no set time limit to define current use.

Q:        What questions can I ask during a job interview or on an application about drug and alcohol use?

A:        You may ask if an applicant drinks alcohol, and if he or she is currently using drugs. 

Q:        What questions should I avoid asking during a job interview or on an application?

A:        Do not ask if the applicant is a drug addict or an alcoholic, because this elicits information about the applicant’s potential disability.  Do not ask if the applicant has ever been in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program. 

Q:        Do I need to provide reasonable accommodations for drug addicts and alcoholics?

A:        As with any other disability, an employer must engage in an interactive process with drug addicts or alcoholics when the employee requests a reasonable accommodation.  It is not necessary to make illegal drug use or drinking alcohol in the workplace acceptable.

Q:        What reasonable accommodations do I need to provide?

A:        Usually, a leave of absence to get treatment, and time off to attend counseling or meetings.

Q:        What if an employee engages in workplace misconduct, but the misconduct is a result of the drug or alcohol addiction?

A:        Most courts have ruled that an employer does not have to allow an employee with a disability to engage in misconduct even if the misconduct is caused by the disability.  But an employer should be prepared to show that the policy or rule that the employee violated was job-related and consistent with business necessity.  If the rule or policy is job-related and consistent with business necessity, then an employer is under no obligation to allow an employee to engage in misconduct in violation of policy, even if the misconduct is caused by the disability.  Be sure to apply conduct rules and policies consistently to every employee.  In addition, remember that current users of illegal drugs are not protected under the law.  For updated information on this issue, please see the WSHRC guidance on Gambini v. Total Renal Care.

Q:        Can an employee avoid discipline by enrolling in a rehabilitation program?

A:        If the employee violated a rule or policy that was job-related and consistent with business necessity, and if the rule or policy was applied consistently to everyone, then an employee cannot avoid discipline by enrolling in a treatment program.

Q:        What policies regarding drug and alcohol use can I put into place?

A:        You can have policies that prohibit the use of illegal drugs and alcohol at the workplace, prohibit employees from being under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol during work hours or while on-call, and prohibit employees from being under the influence of legal drugs that would impair performance or risk safety.  Employees who are under the influence of legal drugs may need to be provided with a reasonable accommodation.  For certain types of jobs, there may be state or federal regulations that require drug testing.  Following accidents, for certain types of jobs, such as those in the transportation field, post-incident drug testing is required.       

Q:        If I suspect an employee of drug use or alcohol abuse, can I ask if they use drugs or abuse alcohol?

A:        This can be risky to do, because you may then be placing yourself in the situation of “regarding” the employee as disabled, which places the employee in a protected category.  If you decide to confront the employee, do so only if you have documented, objective, and verifiable proof of the drug use.  No civil rights law requires you to tolerate or ignore or avoid reporting illegal drug use or driving under the influence of alcohol to law enforcement authorities. 

Q:        What do I do if an employee comes to me with a drug or alcohol issue?

A:        Do not immediately assume that the employee is an addict, and do not refer to the employee as disabled.  Gather more facts, thank the employee for being open and honest, and ask what the employee is requesting from you.  If the employee requests reasonable accommodation, begin the interactive process with the employee.

Q:        What do I do if an employee uses medication for his or her disability? 

A:        Some medications have side-effects that may cause drowsiness or impair job performance.  Employers should try to accommodate these conditions.  However, the employer can prohibit the employee from performing certain job functions for safety purposes.  These may include use of machinery and driving.  An employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. 

Q:        What do I do if an employee needs to self-administer legal drugs in the workplace?

A:        The employer should accommodate these needs.  An example of such an accommodation would be to allow the employee to have his or her break time at the same time that he or she needs to self-administer the medication, and providing the employee with a private place to do so.