July 4, 2022

Volume XII, Number 185


Employer Concerns with Employee Substance Abuse and Drug Use: A Q&A with Caroline J. Berdzik of Goldberg Segalla

With headlines and staggering statistics extolling the impact of the opioid epidemic ripping through the United States, and marijuana (medical and recreational) legalized and decriminalized and a patchwork of state, federal and municipal laws across the country; employers dealing with employee substance abuse and drug use issues have a lot of things to consider. Caroline J. Berdzik, a partner with Goldberg Segalla and chair of the firm’s Labor and Employment and Health Care Groups,  focuses on counseling employers on human resources and employment matters, and was kind enough to share her thoughts on the thorny issues of employers navigating employee substance abuse and drug use.  Read on for more insight and ideas on  how employers should proceed when an employee demonstrates some indication of substance abuse, what the concerns are for employers, and some thoughts on how to move forward keeping in mind changing attitudes on addiction and the laws that may apply. 

Can you outline some of the dangers employers face when employing an individual who is struggling with addiction?

Unfortunately, substance abuse addiction and its ramifications cannot avoid the workplace. There is an acknowledgment that this is not an issue that has social or economic boundaries, anyone from highly compensated executives to hourly employees may struggle with addiction. Addiction can take many forms including alcohol abuse, opioid dependency, or the use of other illegal or legally prescribed substances. Employers need to be concerned about legal issues when dealing with an employee who is struggling with addiction. It may be difficult to confirm that an employee has an addiction as they may try to hide it and depending on the circumstances, there may be limits of how far an employer can pry into these concerns. 

Once the problem is confirmed, some consideration needs to be given as to whether the employee can continue to do their job while working through addiction. If they are unable to perform their job responsibilities, there are options or reasonable accommodations available to the employee or employer (i.e., leave of absence for treatment). Other components to consider include the availability of drug and alcohol testing permitted under the law in their specific jurisdiction; whether the employee’s conduct has violated any company policies; and if the behaviors associated with the employee’s addiction is negatively impacting the quality of their work and interactions with co-workers, supervisors, clients, and others outside the workplace.

What are some of the issues employers must consider when discussing an employee’s addiction problems with an employee? What are the concerns, especially since addiction can be difficult to identify? 

Employers need to be very careful in this regard. Generally, potential addiction is brought to an employer’s attention through observation or by reports from other employees, supervisors, clients, or even customers. If alcohol is the issue, it may be difficult to detect when someone is under the influence, particularly if the consumption is during non-working hours and if the employee is merely coming to work hungover―as opposed to being intoxicated on the job. If the suspected addiction involves drugs (e.g., whether legal or illegal), there are states that don’t allow for reasonable suspicion testing and some states that make it virtually impossible to test at all. Additionally―depending on the nature of the drug―it may also not show up in the drug test depending on when the test is done. 

Many times, this is a difficult conversation to have with an employee since they will most likely deny having any issue because they don’t want to jeopardize their income or employment prospects. Employers need to be careful not to potentially run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other state anti-discrimination laws when discussing a suspected substance abuse problem. Merely perceiving the employee as having a disability can open the employer up to legal risk. Therefore, it is critical to proceed with caution and consult internally or externally with legal counsel and human resources on how to best handle the situation.

How does the legality of the substance the employee is addicted to impact the employer’s actions?  For example, an employee addicted to legal opioid painkillers vs. an employee who is addicted to cocaine or other illegal substances?

The laws are greatly evolving in this area, particularly with respect to cannabis. More and more states have legalized medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. With respect to alcohol, it’s legal to drink alcohol as long as the individual is of age; however, alcohol abuse can cause just as many problems as an employee struggling with a substance abuse problem.

While it may seem easier to take certain actions when managing employees with addictions to other substances (e.g., opioids and cocaine), there are still considerations that come into play. For example, employers in some states cannot take actions against employees based on what activities that they do during off-duty hours.  

Irrespective of the legality of the substance, the employer needs to focus on whether the employee is impaired at work or at work functions (e.g., on a business trip, attending a conference, meeting with clients, etc.). They also need to consider the impact of those behaviors on the individual, the company, and anyone else involved. Employers also need to be cognizant of the laws in their jurisdictions and the policies the company may have regarding the use of alcohol and drugs in the workplace. If someone is a current user of an illegal substance, there is typically no protection afforded to them under the ADA or similar anti-discrimination laws. However, if an employee can tie their addiction to an underlying mental health disorder, it becomes murkier. For employees who are recovering drug addicts or alcoholics, there is likely more protection afforded under anti-discrimination laws.

The key thing for employers to remember is to not make any knee-jerk decisions when evaluating these issues. Employers should take time to fully analyze the circumstances before taking any action and determine what legal obligations, if any, it may have to try to accommodate employees.

What legal requirements come into play when human resources intervene with an employee struggling with addiction?  For example, can this be a situation where the ADA applies?

The ADA is typically something that would come into play when dealing with an employee struggling with addiction. Human resources should consult with legal counsel while navigating through this type of issue. There are a myriad of laws that are intertwined that could potentially be relevant including the federal Family Medical Leave Act, as well as other state or local counterparts. In many circumstances, the employer may need to provide a reasonable accommodation to assist an employee struggling with addiction. Best practices may dictate this type of documented discussion with the impacted employee, even without a legal requirement to do so.

Attitudes toward addiction are changing with addiction increasingly being seen as a disease that should be treated without judgment--how does this shift change an employer’s reaction to employees with addiction issues?

As these issues become more prevalent, including the revelation that they impact individuals at  higher level positions at companies, employers are increasingly willing to work with employees to get them the help they need. I have seen an uptick in counseling calls where employers are genuinely concerned about their employees’ well-being and want to find ways to assist them. However, I have seen situations where employers have gone above and beyond to work with a struggling employee and the employee failed to help themselves with the assistance being offered. 

Rates of prescription opioid abuse are skyrocketing. How is this worrisome trend affecting employers, and are there any proactive steps employers can take?

Opioid use is a very serious problem impacting the workplace. Employers are well advised to have employee assistance programs (EAPs) in place. They should also have open-door policies to encourage employees to come to human resources to seek help for their addiction.

Many thanks to Caroline J. Berdzik of Goldberg Segalla  for sharing her thoughts and insights on this complicated, yet increasingly relevant employment law issue.

Copyright ©2022 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 311

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