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Alcoholism and the Americans with Disability Act

June 7, 2009

By Sarah Stevens,
Human Resources Consultant
AmeriBen/EIC Group

With the expanded definition of a disability resulting from the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA), Human Resources professionals and managers are often confused on how alcoholism fits within the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act, as well as, how to handle employees with alcohol problems. “Is alcoholism a disability under the ADA?” is a frequently asked question. The ADA does not contain a list of medical conditions that are labeled disabilities. Rather, the ADA has a general definition of disability that each person’s condition must meet in order for the condition to be a disability under the ADA. A person has a disability if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that:

1) substantially limits one or more major life activities or,
2) has a record of such impairment or,
3) is regarded as having such impairment

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alcoholism is an impairment. Therefore, people with alcoholism that are substantially limited in a major life activity will have a disability under the ADA. As with all disabilities, alcoholism should be medically certified by a physician in order for the employer to completely understand appropriate accommodations.

Once an employer identifies that an employee’s alcoholism falls under the ADA, employers are often perplexed as to how to make a reasonable accommodations for an alcoholic. The Job Accommodation Network says the following types of questions will help an employer identify an appropriate accommodation:

1. What limitations is the employee with alcoholism
2. How do these limitations affect the employee and the
employee’s job performance?
3. What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of
these limitations?
4. Are all possible resources being used to determine
possible accommodations?
5. Has the employee with alcoholism been consulted
regarding possible accommodations?

The Job Accommodation Network also offers the following, as examples of job accommodations that might be useful for employees with alcoholism:

Attendance Issues:

– Allow use of paid or unpaid leave for medical treatment
– Allow use of paid or unpaid leave or flexible scheduling for counseling
– Provide a self-paced workload or the ability to modify daily schedule

Maintaining Concentration:

– Reduce distractions in the workplace
– Plan for uninterrupted work time
– Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and steps
– Restructure job to include only essential functions

Difficulty Staying Organized and Meeting Deadlines:

– Make a daily to-do list
– Use electronic organizers
– Maintain a current calendar
– Remind employee of important dates
– Schedule weekly meeting with supervisor to determine goals and address employee’s questions, concerns, and work progress
– Write clear expectations of employee’s responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting them
– Establish written long term and short term goals

Difficulty Handling Stress:

– Provide praise and positive reinforcement
– Refer to counseling and employee assistance programs
– Do not mandate job-related social functions where there would be exposure to alcohol

Maintaining Stamina during the Workday:

– Allow flexible scheduling
– Allow for longer or more frequent work breaks
– Encourage the employee to use company sponsored health programs

It is important to remember that the employer’s obligation under ADA is to make reasonable accommodations that do not create an undue hardship on the organization. It is also important to know that even if a person is disabled by alcohol, an employer still has the right to follow their discipline process or terminate an employee whose alcohol use affects their job performance to the severity that the employee is not able to perform the essential functions of their job. ADA laws and employee’s disabilities can be extremely complex. Therefore, we strongly encourage employers to consult legal counsel or contact the IEC Group at, for guidance on a specific situation.

Information courtesy of AmeriBen/IEC Group Explorer

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Discuss this article

Francis July 10, 2009

This is absoute rubbish. I come from a family of alcholics, excepting me i.e. I don’t drink alcohol. Alcoholism is a substance abuse, it is NOT a disability. It’s self imposed and society should not foot the bill. Permiting paid leave means the employer pays for the absence of that employee. The employer must then pass that cost along in the form of increased pricing for products and/or services they provide. If the person with the problem truly wants to keep their job they need to step up to the plate and fix the problem on their own time and at their own expense. They chose to drink, they need to deal with it.

Scott September 19, 2009

I disagree entirely with the comment from Francis above. As does the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and virtually every other major medical institution in the world that has moved past the 1950’s. Addiction is a disease, alcoholism is a form of addiction. Addiction is considered to be a genetically predisposed condition with the added element of environment. As a disease, it is not self imposed anymore than Cancer or Diabetes is self imposed. It is a degenerative, lethal disease. The difference that gives hope, differentiating Addiction from the other major lethal diseases, is that there is a way to survive addiction, there is a choice.
I am saddened that people like Francis, whose comment is above, remain intentionally ignorant about this disease, especially as it is a “family disease”. One would hope for some empathy and compassion from a family member, certainly enough to properly educate oneself. I am hopeful that as more of the global population is accessing more information that such outdated mentalities as that of Francis will be a condition of the past and we can work in a positive approach to solving problems, rather than a close-minded and condemning approach.

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