Alcoholism is a serious medical condition that affects a shocking number of Americans. With more an estimated 15 million Americans suffering from alcohol abuse, this is a topic that hits home for many people.

Both the FMLA and ADA offer protection to employees suffering from substance abuse. However, the FMLA and ADA differ in the type of coverage they afford for qualified individuals.

What is the FMLA?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that offers employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year in the event of a medical emergency. This unpaid leave comes with no threat of job loss — it’s a violation of FMLA to fire an employee because of a medical condition.

Think of FMLA as a layer of protection that kicks in if you:

  • Cannot work due to a serious medical condition.
  • Cannot work due to an immediate family member’s serious medical condition.
  • Have a child.
  • Have another qualifying exigency (military service, for example).

FMLA covers all employees who work for public agencies (including schools). For employees working in the private sector, businesses that employ 50 or more employees (for at least 20 workweeks) during either the current or the previous year qualify.

How Does the FMLA Apply to Alcoholism?

Under FMLA guidelines, alcoholism is a “serious medical condition” if — and only if — the employee passes a set of standards set forth by the Department of Labor. These standards are as follows:

  • For purposes of FMLA, serious health condition entitling an employee to FMLA leave means an illness, injury, impairment or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care as defined in § 825.114 or continuing treatment by a health care provider as defined in § 825.115.

At the same time, an employee considered incapacitated by substance abuse may qualify for protection under FMLA. Here, the FMLA defines “incapacity” as:

  • An inability to work, attend school or perform other regular daily activities due to the serious health condition, treatment therefore, or recovery therefrom.

What Does That Mean (in Practical Terms)?

The FMLA may cover alcoholism and substance abuse if you meet the above requirements. However, FMLA does not provide protection for an employee’s absence due to use of alcohol. FMLA leave may cover an employee for the treatment of alcoholism if — and only if — a healthcare provider recommends treatment.

In practical terms, FMLA only kicks in if you seek treatment on the recommendation of a healthcare provider. An employee cannot use FMLA leave to miss work simply because of substance abuse.

What About FMLA’s Employment Protection?

This is where things get a little tricky.

Under normal FMLA regulations, an employer cannot take punitive action against an employee for taking FMLA leave. The employee must, of course, qualify under FMLA guidelines for this to apply.

However, the Department of Labor maintains that if an employer has an established policy regarding substance abuse, that employer may terminate an employee suffering from substance abuse (even if the employee is taking FMLA leave). For an employer to do this, the following requirements must apply:

  • The employer must write, set down, or otherwise establish their policy.
  • The policy must apply in a non-discriminatory manner to all employees. This means no unfair exceptions or targeting of select individuals.
  • The employer must communicate the policy to all employees.
  • The policy must state that, under certain circumstances, an employer may discharge an employee for substance abuse.

Note: An employee may take FMLA leave if an immediate family member (in-laws do not qualify) is receiving qualified treatment for substance abuse. The employer may not punish the employee for taking FMLA leave in this case.

What Does That Mean (in Practical Terms)?

Put simply, if your company has a policy on the books that says you can get fired for substance abuse, the FMLA is probably not going to protect you.

What’s This About the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers protection to employees suffering from alcoholism.

However, ADA rules and guidelines can be a bit murky. The ADA considers substance abuse to be a disability but, much like the FMLA, contains exceptions for substance abuse.

The ADA offers protection to employees to “qualified” alcoholics. These are addicts who can perform their job with or without any extra reasonable accommodations.

An employee suffering from alcoholism may claim “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA. As a general rule, reasonable accommodations typically consist of unpaid time off for the purpose of treatment. Employees may seek unpaid leave for the purposes of treatment. They may also request modified work schedules to attend treatment programs.

Note: Under the ADA, employers may refuse to grant additional unpaid leave if treatment has failed repeatedly in the past.

What About Termination?

An employer may terminate (or refuse to hire) an employee who is currently engaging in the use of illegal drugs. However, an employer may not discriminate against a person (either employee or prospective hire) based solely on the person’s past history of illegal drug use.

In a nutshell: the ADA will not do much if you’re currently using illegal drugs. However, if you’ve been successfully rehabilitated (or are receiving treatment), you will qualify under the ADA.

What Does That Mean (in Practical Terms)?

The ADA, by and large, considers alcoholism to be a disability.

Alcoholics have certain protections that come with that legal classification. However, employers have the right to enforce a drug and alcohol-free workplace.

As a general rule, expect employers to provide a reasonable level of accommodation for alcoholism — that’s it. Employers can hold their alcoholic employees to the same standards of work as other employees.

FMLA, ADA, and Alcoholism: A Complicated Scene

Both the FMLA and ADA offer different levels of protection for employees suffering from addiction. At its core, the FMLA provides coverage for employees with alcoholism who are receiving treatment on referral by a healthcare provider.

The ADA, on the other hand, focuses on the disability aspect of substance abuse. Employees suffering from alcohol addiction enjoy protection from the ADA — provided they can fulfill their job duties with or without reasonable accommodations.

Transformations Treatment Center

If you or a loved one suffers from alcoholism or substance abuse — you’re not alone. Transformations Treatment Center offers holistic, individualized care in our affordable, upscale treatment facility. To learn more about our services, please feel free to contact us online or give us a call at 800-270-4315.


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