Alcoholism and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Drug users and alcoholics are treated differently under employment disability laws. Under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), alcoholism is recognized as a disability. Thus, individuals suffering from alcoholism are entitled to the same protections under the ADA as someone with another qualifying physical or mental disability. On the other hand, the ADA specifically excludes from protection individuals who currently illegally use drugs (when the employer’s action is based on drug use).[1] However, a former drug user may be protected under the ADA if the recovering drug addict falls into the ADA’s safe harbor provision and can show the condition “substantially limits” or is perceived by the employer as substantially limiting, the ability to perform a major life activity.

Alcoholism as a Protected Disability

Courts have usually held that alcoholism is a covered disability, even if the individual still drinks alcohol.[2]  However, some courts have required the individual to show that his or her alcoholism substantially limits a major life activity.[3]  Under California law, alcoholism may be considered a disability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) if it “limits” major life activities.[4] In contrast with the ADA, the FEHA does not require a substantial limitation. Employers may nonetheless enforce rules concerning alcohol in the workplace. The ADA specifically permits employers to:

  1. Prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace;
  2. Require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol in the workplace; and
  3. Hold an employee with alcoholism to the same standards for employment or job performance and behavior to which the employer holds other employees even if unsatisfactory performance or behavior is related to the alcoholism.

Thus, the ADA distinguishes between alcoholism and alcohol-related misconduct; the former is protected while the latter is not.[5] Although an employer may enforce its workplace rules against alcoholics, it may not discriminate against an applicant or employee with alcoholism. For example, an employer may not discipline an alcoholic more harshly than it disciplines a non-alcoholic employee.

As with other disabled employees, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations to employees suffering from alcoholism.  This could generally involve a modified work schedule so the employee can attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or a leave of absence so the employee can seek treatment.  However, an employer is generally not required to provide leave to an alcoholic employee if the treatment would appear to be futile.[6]  Additionally, an employer generally has no duty to provide an accommodation to an employee who has not asked for an accommodation and who denies having a disability.

[1] (42 U.S.C. § 12114(a); 29 C.F.R. § 1630.3(a).)

[2] (See, e.g., Brown v. Lucky Stores, Inc. (9th Cir. 2001) 246 F.3d 1182.)

[3] (See, e.g., Alexander v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, No. 12-cv-1959 (D.D.C. March 10, 2015) [plaintiff failed to establish how his alcoholism substantially limited a major life activity].)

[4] (Gov. Code § 12926.)

[5] (See Gonzalez v. State Personnel Bd. (1995) 33 Cal.App.4th 422, 436.)

[6] (See, e.g., Fuller v. Frank (9th Cir. 1990) 916 F.2d 558, 562 [employer was not required to give an alcoholic employee another leave of absence when alcohol treatment repeatedly failed in the past].)

Jamal Jackson is an Associate Attorney with experience helping both employees and employers in navigating ADA compliance.