State and federal law provides protections to individuals with disabilities, including requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to them. Because alcoholism and drug addiction are recognized disabilities under these laws, individuals with such conditions have the same right to these protections.
ADA Protections for Employees with Disabilities
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) both prohibit disability discrimination in employment. The MHRA states that a “disabled person” is “any person who  has a physical, sensory, or mental impairment which materially limits one or more major life activities.” Minn. Stat. § 363A.03, Subd. 12. Because alcoholism and drug addiction fall within this definition, employers are prohibited from discriminating against their employees with alcoholism or drug addiction.
Though employees with disabilities are protected from discrimination, they can still legally be disciplined for performance deficiencies or workplace rule violations. Furthermore, an employee’s disability status will not protect the employee if they violate the employer’s rules regarding drug or alcohol use on the company’s premises. Similarly, employers can discipline employees who are under the influence while working or at work, regardless of their disability status. On the other hand, an employer cannot impose more significant discipline against an employee for violation of these rules simply because the employee has a drug or alcohol-related disability.
An Employer’s Obligations
An employer has affirmative obligations it must take once it learns of an employee’s or applicant’s drug or alcohol-related disability. The employer has to engage in an interactive process with the employee in order to determine whether a reasonable accommodation may be necessary. This obligation is triggered once an employer knows of the employee’s disability or has sufficient information to know an employee is having difficulty performing aspects of their job because of an impairment that may constitute a disability under these statutes. In these situations, there are a variety of reasonable accommodation options, including allowing the employee time off to attend support groups or to participate in a rehabilitation or treatment program.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) also provides employees with serious medical conditions, such as alcoholism or drug addition, up to twelve weeks of leave for treating their condition. The FMLA strictly prohibits any form of retaliation against an employee who has taken leave to undergo treatment for alcoholism.
In sum, the law provides significant protections to employees with addiction issues. As with other medical conditions, the law favors recovery, rehabilitation, and continued work, not discipline or retaliation. If you are an employee with questions about workplace protections or rights regarding alcoholism or drug-addiction issues, speaking with experienced legal counsel early in the process can be beneficial. We would be happy to connect with you and make sure that you are being afforded your legal rights.