Balancing Addiction and ADA Rights

Beth Dean 05.21.24
Graphic - Blog 2024-05-21 Balancing Addiction and ADA Rights

When Addiction Strikes at Work

The issue of addiction in the workplace presents a complex challenge for both employers and employees. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects qualified individuals with disabilities, but active addiction itself isn’t necessarily covered. Here’s a breakdown of rights and responsibilities:

Employee Rights Under the ADA
  • Generally Not Covered: The ADA typically doesn’t cover current illegal drug use. Employers can have policies prohibiting the use of illegal drugs in the workplace and take action against employees who violate them.
  • Recovered Individuals: The ADA protects individuals who are in recovery from addiction and are no longer using illegal drugs. For these individuals, the ADA requires employers to consider reasonable accommodations if their addiction qualifies as a disability. 
  • Functional Impact Matters: For addiction to be considered a disability under the ADA, it must substantially limit one or more major life activities, such as working, learning, or caring for oneself.
Employer’s Rights and Responsibilities
  • Maintaining a Safe Workplace: Employers have the right and responsibility to maintain a safe work environment. Suppose an employee’s active addiction poses a direct threat to themselves or others (due to impaired judgment, coordination, or reliability). In that case, the employer can take necessary action, including temporary leave or termination, following proper procedures and documentation.
  • Interactive Process for Treatment: When an employee requests an accommodation to pursue treatment, the ADA requires employers to engage in an “interactive process” to explore reasonable options, whether the employee is actively addicted or in recovery. Accommodation requests could involve a leave of absence for inpatient treatment, a flexible schedule for outpatient programs, or a temporary change in job duties to minimize disruption while actively addressing their addiction. The interactive process will determine if those requests are reasonable. This doesn’t guarantee the employee will get their exact request, but employers must demonstrate they considered options to find a solution that allows them to seek treatment and potentially return to work safely.
  • No Obligation to Keep Actively Addicted Employee: The ADA doesn’t require employers to keep an employee whose active addiction significantly hinders their ability to perform essential job duties, even if the employee requests accommodation related to their addiction (such as modified tasks that might compromise safety standards). However, employers should follow established disciplinary procedures and avoid discrimination based solely on addiction.
Importance of Clear Policies

Having clear and well-communicated handbook policies prohibiting drug and alcohol use in the workplace can help prevent misunderstandings. These policies should outline expectations, potential consequences of violating them, and resources available to employees seeking help with addiction. Contact your HR Business Partner at Nextep for help with constructing the right policy for your unique workplace.


People facing situations involving addiction in the workplace can benefit from seeking professional guidance:

Finding a Path Forward

Navigating addiction in the workplace requires balancing legal compliance, workplace safety, and supporting employees seeking recovery. By staying informed and consulting with legal professionals when needed, you can approach these situations with empathy and understanding.

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