Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

Alcoholism and the ADA

Have you ever wondered if alcoholism may be covered as a disability? If you have, you’re not alone. This topic can be perplexing for anyone learning about Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifics, especially with how they pertain to current or previous drug or alcohol use.

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First, the word “alcoholic” may refer to someone who is currently sober and no longer partakes, sometimes referred to as a recovering alcoholic.

Whether alcoholism qualifies as a disability depends on the individual’s circumstances. That said, it is generally accepted that the ADA definition of “disability” could include alcoholism, given that alcoholism could substantially limit one or more major life activities. However, it’s also generally accepted (and suggested by the courts) that alcoholism is not a disability by default and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Alcoholism as a Disability—Employer Expectations

Given that alcoholism may qualify as a disability, what does that mean for employers?

Importantly, regardless of whether an individual’s alcoholism qualifies as a disability, employers are not required to tolerate someone being under the influence of alcohol while on the job or acting in a way that puts the safety of others at risk. They also don’t have to allow misconduct or allow employees not to meet performance standards. In short, employers have the right to enforce their drug and alcohol policies, performance policies, and attendance policies for everyone, as long as everyone is treated in a consistent manner.  

There are two other takeaways for employers in relation to alcoholism and the ADA. The first is that reasonable accommodations may be required for an alcoholic. Just as with any other disability, the employer will need to use the interactive process to determine the appropriate accommodation. Some examples may include:

  • Time off to attend AA meetings to maintain sobriety
  • Personal leave to attend other forms of treatment, including rehab programs
  • Other reasonable accommodations related to the disability or its side effects

The other takeaway for employers is that because alcoholism will frequently qualify as a disability, it could be deemed illegal under the ADA to discriminate against someone with a history of alcoholism. Employers need to be aware of this when making hiring or other employment-related decisions. If in doubt, consult with legal counsel before making a decision.

Employers should be aware of the overall situation when crafting drug and alcohol policies, as well, and should train all managers and supervisors to treat employees consistently when it comes to disciplinary actions. Managers should also be trained to understand when an employee may be inexplicitly asking for a reasonable accommodation.

Has your organization grappled with this issue? If yes, were you in a situation in which reasonable accommodations could have been made to accommodate the individual? Please comment below with your experiences.