Workforce

DOJ wants stronger protections under the ADA for employees with alcohol issues

The department has filed a court action against a Minnesota town for requiring an employee to pay for proof of sobriety.
The applicability of the ADA to alcoholism has been murky. | Photo: Shutterstock

Nearly 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) took effect, the U.S. Department of Justice is looking to expand employers’ obligations under the landmark law by seeking court validation that alcoholism should be a covered disability.

DOJ filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the city of Blaine, Minn., alleging that the municipality discriminated against an employee with alcohol use disorder (AUD), or what’s popularly known as alcoholism.

The action states that Blaine officials required the unnamed worker to pay for ongoing tests to verify he was no longer abusing alcohol, as he acknowledged doing in off-hours during the past. The employee volunteered the admittance while asking for time to undergo a rehabilitation program.

The suit alleges that Blaine singled out the employee because of his AUD; no other town employees were required to undergo repeated sobriety tests.

DOJ said it has never before used the ADA to resolve a complaint against an employer for slighting an employee because he had AUD.

The federal agency went beyond filing a lawsuit. It also asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to approve a proposed consent decree that was submitted along with the suit. A sort of pre-packaged settlement, the decree essentially spells out what actions Blaine would need to take for DOJ to view the dispute as being resolved. Chief among them is changing its policies so as not to impose costs or other burdens on employees because they suffer from AUD.

The deal also calls for Blaine to reimburse the employee $1,979.07 for out-of-pocket expenses incurred to prove he was sober, and $11,250 in compensatory damages.

The announcement of the court action indicates that Blaine has agreed to meet its obligations under the decree.

Protections afforded employees with AUD under the disabilities act has been murky at best.

Workers whose job performance is impaired by alcohol are not shielded from dismissal because of the health issue, according to many interpretations of the ADA. Yet some guidelines say even a self-diagnosis of AUD could warrant such employer accommodations as providing time for a worker to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

If DOJ prevails in its action against Blaine, the repercussions could affect all employers. But the implications could be particularly important for restaurants because AUD and a related ailment, substance use disorder (SUD), are so prevalent in the industry.

In no other business is SUD so widespread, with 17% of foodservice workers diagnosed with the abuse malady, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The restaurant industry has the third-highest prevalence of AUD among all U.S. businesses, the Administration says. The data also shows that nearly 12% of the trade’s workforce indulge in binge drinking at least once a month.

According to DOJ, 29.5 million Americans over age 12 have been afflicted with AUD, and another 27.2 million suffer from a drug use disorder. Together, they account for 17.3% of the U.S. teen and adult population, DOJ says.

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