‘Can I Be Fired if I Go to Rehab?’ Knowing Your Rights as an Employee
Ultimately, entering a treatment facility to get help with a drug or alcohol problem may be the only way for most addicts to preserve their livelihoods. Even if substance abusers are not actually using on the job, drugs and alcohol can take a heavy toll on all who overuse them, and it is inevitable that the job-related performance of addicts will decline as they sink deeper into their dependency.
But ironically, many addicts are actually reluctant to seek help for their disease because they are worried that it may cost them their jobs. Because of the stigma that is associated with substance abuse, many feel that they must keep their drug and alcohol problems secret no matter what, believing their employers will fire them for sure if they ever find out the truth.
But one thing that drug addicts and alcoholics have in common with most Americans is that they are woefully ignorant about their own rights. The truth is that while addicts will have plenty to worry about if the quality of their work deteriorates because of their chemical dependency, those who are willing to admit they have a problem and seek help are entitled to protection under two landmark federal laws – the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
This legislation prohibits discrimination against those with a physical or mental disability. Title I of the ADA deals with employment, and it includes recovered or recovering addicts and alcoholics among those who cannot be legally discriminated against on the job. Anyone who has successfully completed a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in the past, or is undergoing treatment at a licensed facility in the present, cannot be fired simply because of their previous behavior. Also, as long as they are performing their duties adequately and are not endangering anyone, an alcoholic who has not yet entered treatment cannot be fired even if their employer becomes aware of his or her condition (drug addicts don’t enjoy this protection because they are using illegal substances). Additionally, no one can be discriminated against while applying for a new job based on a past history of substance abuse alone. This last clause in the ADA should ease the minds of addicts who are concerned that even if their current employers allow them to go to rehab without retaliation, future potential employers may deny them a position based on their identification as former substance abuser. This would be against the law, and it is not something an addict considering entering treatment should be worrying about.
So just based on the ADA alone, no recovering addict has to be concerned that they will be terminated simply because they are in rehab. And for alcoholics the situation is even better, since they don’t necessarily have to be in treatment in order to receive protection against discrimination. Of course, the chances of a practicing alcoholic continuing to perform capably on the job in the long-term are basically non-existent, but at least they will have time to find the help they so desperately need without having to worry about losing their jobs in the interim.
But there is a problem here. If the ADA were the only form of legal protection available to addicts who desired to seek treatment, employers could do an end run around this legislation by refusing to grant their workers the time off they need to enter rehabilitation and receive treatment. Then, they could let those employees go before they ever had the chance to seek help for their substance abuse issues, and there would be nothing under the law that anyone could do to stop them.
But fortunately, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 this scenario can never become a reality.
The Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to grant their workers a minimum of twelve (12) weeks of paid or unpaid leave in a calendar year. The only stipulation is that employees must have a legitimate health-related reason for requesting this time off, but the good news for addicts is that drug and alcohol treatment is considered to be a legitimate health-related reason under the standards established by the FMLA. So an addict that admits his or her problem and is willing to go to rehab voluntarily will be able to return to work after the treatment finishes without retribution or negative consequence, just as long as the duration of that treatment does not surpass the FMLA’s 12 week limit.
The only caution is that the FMLA does have a formal process for requesting a leave of absence, so anyone who commits themselves to a treatment facility first and then tells their employer about it afterwards will not be guaranteed protection under the auspices of this law. But the bottom line is that as long as a drug addict or alcoholic is forthcoming about their situation, the laws will prevent them from being fired if they make the smart decision to get some help before their lives have been completely destroyed by substance abuse.
The Gift of an Opportunity
So the answer to the question in the title of this article is no, a person cannot lose their job if they enter rehab for a drug or alcohol addiction. Furthermore, they cannot be discriminated against in the future if they seek new employment simply because they were treated for chemical dependency in the past. All of this is good; however, addicts should know that having a substance abuse problem will not protect them from termination if they perform poorly on the job. An employer always has the right to fire an employee for just cause, and an addict who is about to be let go for making too many mistakes cannot save themselves by suddenly deciding they are going to go into rehab.
The legal protections that exist to help addicts who are willing to ask for help are valuable and important, but they do not give drug abusers and alcoholics a blank check or a ‘get out of jail free’ card.
And of course, if a substance abusers in recovery starts using again after leaving rehab and returning to work, they can and will be held fully accountable for the quality of their performance by their employers, who may not be so forgiving or accommodating the second time around. The legal protections against summary termination and discrimination that have been granted to addicts are only in place to make sure they have ample opportunity to get clean and sober, but if they are not able to do so there are no laws anywhere that will be able to protect them from the consequences of their actions.