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Is Alcohol Testing a Violation of the ADA?

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. Employers may not ask prospective employees about the nature or severity of disabilities or require them to take a medical examination before making a job offer.

If an employer requires all job applicants to take a medical examination before beginning work and always makes final job offers conditional on the satisfactory result of those medical examinations, it may require disabled job applicants to complete the same examination. After a person starts work, a medical examination must be job-related and a business necessity. Alcohol testing qualifies as a medical examination under the ADA.

To avoid conflicting with the requirements of the ADA, alcohol testing must be intimately linked to business necessity and the essential functions of the job. In general, it should not concern an employer if an employee drinks after work or even has a drink or two over lunch — as long as that lunchtime drink does not adversely affect afternoon performance. It should be noted, however, that the ADA does not protect individuals who consume alcohol while at work.

Likewise, an employer who knows that an employee is a recovering alcohol may not routinely subject that employee to alcohol testing if the presence of alcohol in the employee’s system would not affect his or her ability to perform the essential functions of her job or pose a significant threat to other employees or to customers. For example, an employee whose job requires him or her to perform data entry, answer the phone, scrub bathrooms, or write memos will not pose a significant threat to other employees or to customers and may be able to perform the essential functions of the job even with alcohol in his or her system. In such a case, alcohol testing would probably violate the ADA’s anti-discrimination requirements. But someone whose job requires driving a vehicle, operating heavy machinery, or performing surgery would pose a significant threat to others. So in these and similar cases, alcohol testing would not violate the ADA.

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