ADA Coverage: Drug v. Alcohol Users, Part 2. Alcohol Users

In our previous blog we discussed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coverage for Drug Users. In this entry, we will cover how and when Alcohol Users are covered under the ADA. According to the ADA, individuals who abuse alcohol may be considered disabled under the ADA if the person is an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic. See, e.g., Adamczyk v. Baltimore County, No. 97-1240, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 1331 (4th Cir. 1998). Courts throughout the country have held that alcoholism is a disability covered by the ADA. See, Miners v. Cargill Communications, Inc., 113 F.3d 820 (8th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 118 S. Ct. 441 (1997); Office of the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms v. Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices, 95 F.3d 1102 (Fed. Cir. 1996); Williams v. Widnall, 79 F.3d 1003 (10th Cir. 1996).

Some courts have questioned whether this ailment is something that should be automatically covered or whether further analysis need be done to determine whether the individuals alcoholism “substantially limits” a major life activity. For instance, the court in Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 119 S. Ct. 2139, 527 U.S. 471 (1999) explained that “a ‘disability’ exists only where an impairment ‘substantially limits’ a major life activity, not where it ‘might’, ‘could’ or ‘would’ be substantially limiting if corrective measures were not taken.” Id. Subsection (A) of 42 U.S.C. §12102(2) mandates that disabilities be evaluated “with respect to an individual” and be determined according to whether the impairment substantially limited the person’s “major life activities”, therefore, the question of whether an individual’s impairment due to alcoholism is covered by the ADA is an individualized inquiry. Id.

Although alcoholism may be a covered disability, employers can still enforce rules concerning alcohol in the workplace. According to the ADA, employers can prohibit the use of alcohol at work, require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol at work, and hold an employee with alcoholism to the same employment standards as other employees, even if the poor performance or conduct is related to the employee’s alcoholism. 42 U.S.C. §12114 (1994).

As alcoholism is covered as described above, the ADA requires reasonable accommodation that may involve a modified work schedule so the employee can attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or possibly a leave of absence so that employee can seek treatment. See, e.g. Schmidt v. Safeway, Inc., 864 F. Supp. 991 (D. Ore. 1994). An employer need not provide any alcohol rehab programs or to offer means for a rehab program in lieu of disciplining that employee for any alcohol related issues that arise at work. See, 135 CONG. REC. S10777 (daily ed. Sept. 7, 1989). Also, an employer is not under any obligation to provide time for leave for an employee if the treatment would be futile, if the employer determines so based upon the employee’s track record of failing to complete or succeed with treatment in the past. See, Schmidt, 864 F. Supp. 991; Evans v. Fed. Express Corp., 133 F.3d 137 (1st Cir. 1998).

Check back next month to see our next blog post regarding the FMLA Coverage of Alcohol and Drug Users.

To learn more about ADA protection of Alcohol Users and Drug Users and what that means for employers, please contact Dana Perminas at or by calling Dana at (312) 334-3474.