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Does the ADA Require Employers to Accommodate Employees Who Suffer from Alcoholism?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits employer discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities who can otherwise perform the essential functions of their jobs. But we usually think of disabilities as things like paraplegia, multiple sclerosis, or speech defects — conditions entirely beyond the individual’s control. Does the ADA require employers to offer the same treatment to employees or potential employees who suffer from alcoholism?

It depends on the circumstances. The ADA does not require employers to permit anyone to drink on the job, whether the job requires you to drive a school bus or sit at a desk all day. On-the-job use of alcohol is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In fact, under the ADA, employers can require that able bodied and disabled employees alike be able to perform all of the essential functions of their jobs, and where alcoholism interferes with those functions — e.g., through chronic lateness or no show/no call absences — it can create a legitimate reason for termination regardless of the ADA.

But where alcoholism or ongoing treatment for alcoholism interferes with nonessential job functions like attending social events with clients or driving a company vehicle without an ignition interlock system, the ADA seems to require employers to make reasonable accommodations. For recovering alcoholics who need to attend daily or twice-daily AA meetings, employers should design or permit a flexible schedule that makes allowances for those meetings. For alcoholics who need to take a leave from their jobs in order to participate in in-patient or full-day alcohol treatment programs, employers should permit them to take that leave — unpaid, if necessary — without objection or undue pressure.

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