Seyfarth Synopsis: It has long been clear that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California law protect employees who suffer from alcoholism if it qualifies as a “disability.” Although courts have recognized the right of an employer to have legitimate work rules that prohibit alcohol use in the workplace, the line between having a protected disability and engaging in unprotected conduct is not always clear. The distinction is critical because protected alcoholics may be entitled to reasonable accommodations and leaves of absence under federal and state laws.

With the opioid crisis dominating the news, employers are understandably concerned about the misuse of prescription drugs and the impact that addiction has on their business, employees and the general public. But let’s not forget about alcohol. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 17.6 million people—or one in every 12 adults—suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, along with several million more who engage in “risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems.” The Council also reports that workers with alcohol problems are 2.7 times more likely to have injury-related absences, and approximately 24% of workers have admitted to drinking on the job.

The data might be clear, but the solution is not. Workplace alcoholism presents a variety of issues, especially in California, which goes beyond the ADA in protecting alcoholics in recovery. Correctly navigating California’s discrimination and leave laws is crucial not only for helping to avoid litigation, but also for ensuring a safe environment for all employees.

When Is Alcoholism Considered A Disability?

Under the ADA, individuals who abuse alcohol may be considered disabled if the person is an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) also treats alcoholism as a disability. California liberally defines protected “disability” to include impairments that only “limit” (rather than “substantially limit” as required under the ADA) the ability to work. Of course, both laws make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against individuals based on the mistaken belief the person is an alcoholic (i.e., “regarding” someone as disabled).

Leave Rules for Alcohol-Related Disabilities

The California Family Rights Act entitles employees to up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave for alcohol-related disabilities. After the 12 weeks, extended leaves of absence may be a further, reasonable accommodation under both California and federal law. Employers may also have to accommodate alcoholic employees when they return to (or remain in) the workplace, which may include granting time off or intermittent leave to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or other support groups.

California’s Labor Code also has a chapter entitled “Alcoholic and Drug Rehabilitation” (Labor Code §§ 1025 to 1028), which requires a private employer with 25 or more employees to accommodate an employee who voluntarily requests to enter and participate in an alcohol rehabilitation program. Such a request may be denied only if doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. What is unclear is how many times an employee can request such an accommodation, and whether an employer can require an employee to execute a “Last Chance Agreement” to prevent abuse of Labor Code section 1025. Employers should consider consulting experienced employment counsel before presenting an employee with such an agreement and acting on any violations of it.

So, Can My Company Prohibit Alcohol Use At Work?

All of this said, California law does not prohibit an employer from implementing and enforcing rules regarding alcohol in the workplace.

A guidance memorandum issued by the federal EEOC explained in a hypothetical that if an employee blames her tardiness on her drinking and states that she would like to check in to a treatment center, the employer can discipline the employee for being tardy, but also may have to grant the employee a leave of absence as an accommodation to seek treatment.

The California Labor Code also expressly states that the law does not “prohibit an employer from refusing to hire, or discharging an employee who, because of the current employee’s use of alcohol or drugs, is unable to perform his or her duties, or cannot perform the duties in a manner which would not endanger his or her health or safety or the health or safety of others.”

Even so, employers must tread carefully so as to avoid a claim that any action taken is based on the employee’s protected alcoholism rather than a violation of work rules.

Workplace Solutions:  There is no doubt that alcoholism adversely affects those who suffer from it as well as employers and their businesses. Correctly navigating employment laws governing what you can and cannot do as an employer is challenging. A few points to consider:

  • Establish a policy against alcohol use in the workplace, which addresses when alcohol consumption is permitted or prohibited and highlights the availability of rehabilitation services and any employee assistance program.
  • Educate those responsible for engaging in the interactive process about the proper questions to ask, being careful to avoid questions likely to elicit information about alcoholism, which could be deemed an improper inquiry into someone’s disability. This also could be an issue if an applicant or employee has alcohol-related convictions.
  • Implement a drug and alcohol testing policy that allows for post-accident and reasonable suspicion testing.
  • Educate supervisors and managers about the signs of alcohol use and abuse, and steps for reporting any suspicious behavior. Such training is important for those who will determine whether an employee will be tested based on the reasonable suspicion of abuse.
  • Provide assistance to those suffering from alcoholism instead of discharging them. As mentioned, alcoholism may be a protected disability, thus triggering your duty to engage in the interactive process and to reasonably accommodate an employee suffering from alcoholism.