Can You Be Fired for Being an Alcoholic?

Under U.S. law, certain protections exist to protect employees against discrimination. Protected categories include race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. The definition of disability is not always clear, especially when growing scientific research shows that substance abuse is related to a person’s mental health. If an employee suffers from alcoholism, can the employer fire him or her?

When Is Alcoholism a Disability?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of people with disabilities, including employment rights. Under this law, alcoholism may be a disability if the employee in question is an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic. In addition, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) considers alcoholism to be a disability. California law defines disability as a condition that limits the ability to work, which alcoholism will fall under. An employer cannot discriminate against employees based on their actual or perceived alcoholic status.

California Leave Rules for Alcoholism

California employment law provides employees up to 12 weeks of leave for alcohol-related disabilities. The employee can use this time to seek treatment, enter a rehabilitation program, or for another reason related to the disability. The employer cannot punish the employee for taking this leave by threatening his or her job status. If the employee needs more than 12 weeks of absence, he or she may receive more leave time if the leave is necessary for reasonable accommodations.

Employers must also provide accommodations for employees suffering from alcoholism in the workplace. The employer must grant time off to attend support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or to seek outpatient treatment. In addition, the California Labor Code requires private employers who hire 25 or more employees to accommodate rehabilitation leave to employees. The only reason an employer can refuse this request is if the leave would place an undue burden on the employer.

Confidentiality, the Hiring Process, and Discrimination

Employees may also wonder if they need to disclose their alcoholic status to their employer during the hiring process or while on the job. Because alcoholism is a medical condition, the employee does not have to disclose this status. The employer can ask if the employee or job applicant consumes alcohol, but he or she cannot ask about any addiction or the amount of alcohol the employee consumes.

However, the employer retains the right to order a medical exam for the job offer, which could detect substance abuse. Still, the employer cannot refuse to hire someone simply because he or she is an alcoholic. An employer could refuse to hire the employee if the use of alcohol would hinder his or her duties or if the employee would not be able to perform these duties safely and without risk to the health and safety of the employee and/or other employees.

Reasonable Accommodation and Misconduct in the Workplace

Under the ADA, California employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. However, alcoholism can be tricky to navigate; the employee will have to prove that he or she cannot perform one activity and to therefore request accommodations, such as walking or performing certain manual tasks. The employer must comply with these accommodations if he or she believes the request is reasonable and the request does not place an undue burden on the workplace.

However, alcoholism does not provide protections for an employee who commits a form of misconduct. An employer still retains the right to fire the employee if he or she exhibits unacceptable behavior, such as violating company rules, failing to show up for work, or committing a safety violation. Employers cannot fire an employee solely because he or she is an alcoholic.

If you suffer from alcoholism and believe your employer committed a violation of the ADA, seek the assistance of a Los Angeles employee attorney as soon as possible. You may be eligible to file a lawsuit against your employer for wrongful termination or violation of your disability rights.