HR Management & Compliance

Alcoholic Employees: Ruling Makes It Easier to Fire Workers Who Relapse

In the first California court decision addressing your obligation to accommodate alcoholic employees, a court has given employers more leeway to terminate workers who continue to drink after unsuccessful efforts at rehabilitation. Here’s what the new case means for your employment practices.

Oil Refinery Supervisor Has Drinking Problem

Richard Gosvener worked as a shift supervisor for Pacific Refining Co. in Hercules, Calif. While on duty he was responsible for the safe operation of the plant.

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After 18 years with the company, Gosvener informed his supervisor that he had an alcohol and drug problem. Pacific agreed to pay for his treatment at a private clinic and reassigned him to a less stressful position, without reducing his pay.

For two years after the rehabilitation, Gosvener appeared to have his substance abuse problem under control. But following a serious safety incident, Gosvener admitted that he had started drinking again.

Last-Chance Agreement

Pacific agreed to give Gosvener one last chance at rehabilitation. The company required him to sign a last-chance agreement promising to get treatment, have no unexcused absences, remain drug and alcohol free, be fit for work and submit to random drug testing-or be fired.

Despite rehabilitation efforts, Gosvener continued to drink and frequently missed work. Pacific finally informed him he was going to be terminated. Gosvener then asked to enter a different type of treatment program, but Pacific refused. That’s when Gosvener sued, arguing the refinery had failed to accommodate his alcohol problem.

Court Rules for Employer

The California Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the employer, finding that Pacific had more than fulfilled its obligation to accommodate Gosvener by twice permitting him to enter alcohol rehabilitation. The court said a worker cannot stave off termination indefinitely by entering one rehabilitation program after another. And the last-chance agreement made clear that Gosvener was not entitled to any more rehabilitation leave and that further violations would lead to termination.

Useful Strategies

In light of the court’s decision, here are some measures you should consider before discharging someone with an alcohol problem:

  1. Offer counseling or rehabilitation. If possible, give the worker the opportunity to have counseling or rehabilitation before termination. In fact, if you have 25 or more employees, California law requires that you allow a worker who requests it to enter an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program, unless it would be an undue hardship on you.
  2. Sign a last-chance agreement. Because alcoholics can have one or two relapses, it may be reasonable to give the person an additional opportunity to seek treatment. But this new case makes clear that your obligation to accommodate has limits. You have the right to insist that the employee sign a last-chance agreement that spells out your accommodation efforts and states that new violations will lead to termination. You may also want the worker to agree to submit to random testing.
  3. Maintain privacy. Always keep confidential the fact that a worker has sought treatment for a drug or alcohol problem.

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