Employers should think twice before firing alcoholic employees because of the American with Disabilities Act (and similar state laws, such as the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and Missouri Human Rights Act).

Many businesses have zero tolerance policies for alcohol abuse at work.  But employers must still ask whether an employee, who appears to be intoxicated at work, or suffering from other alcoholism related performance issues, is entitled to an accommodation for the disease of alcoholism.

Yes, these employees have a physical disability that needs to be accommodated.  But that accommodation must be reasonable.  Businesses can terminate employees who endanger themselves or others at work because they are drunk.

If your employee tells you that he is in recovery or is an alcoholic, do not terminate him just for that.  To do such a thing would be a disability discrimination.  Instead, engage with your employee in the interactive process — that is, the process for deciphering and providing reasonable accommodations.  Such accommodations might include time off to attend AA meetings or Employee Assistance Programs.  They might include a short leave to attend a treatment facility.  They might include changing their duties slightly so that they do not have to serve alcohol or be around people who are drinking.  They might include changing nonessential job duties to exclude driving.

When dealing with an employee whom you suspect or know has an alcohol problem, follow good practices with respect to the interactive process.  Document all the steps you take.  Seek medical recommendations, in the form of doctor’s notes, from your employees, so that you can understand what accommodations they need.  Clarify anything confusing in the accommodation requests.  Fully analyze whether you can, as a business, accommodate the requests.  And, if you cannot, or if the employee really is drinking to the point that they cannot do their job, function normally, or pose a danger to themselves or others, then make sure you document that before terminating them.

So, yes, employers have to accommodate their employees’ alcoholism.  But only to a point: i.e. in helping the employee who is attempting recovery, not letting your employees run around the office in various states of drunkenness.  If you aren’t sure whether you can fire an alcoholic employee due to behavior that raises red flags, call your employment lawyer and discuss the situation, rather than getting sued.

And PLEASE do not tell a drunk employee to go home and then expect them to drive themselves. If they get in an accident, you can be held responsible!

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