Employee Rights & Drug Addiction

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Overcoming an addiction can be an uphill battle on its own, without having to deal with the consequences it can have in your professional life. Fortunately, an employee does have certain rights when it comes to drug addiction or alcoholism. While it's good to have your employer's explicit support as you face your addiction, it also pays to go into any conversation with your boss with a thorough understanding of your rights as an employee.

Laws vary by state and jurisdiction, but generally speaking, you may be protected against termination solely on the grounds of your drug problem. Similarly, you cannot be turned down for a job for which you are otherwise qualified just because you are currently or have been addicted to drugs. There are a number of fine points, however, that make the question a bit more complicated.

The relevant piece of legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which, among many other categories, deals with employee rights and drug addiction, and includes a list of protected disabilities which any company of more than 14 employees must honor. The ADA specifically addresses those employees whose drug use becomes an addiction—that is, a condition that substantially impacts the employees life and impairs normal functions. The recreational use of drugs, illegal or otherwise is not enough to warrant protection under the ADA.

It is also important to note that while you cannot be fired for having a drug problem, you can be fired if that problem negatively affects your job performance in any way. The ADA requires that protected employees be otherwise qualified to perform their duties. This can quickly become a very gray area, and a court is likely to take an employer at its word if they maintain you were terminated because your job performance was suffering.

If you feel comfortable with the relationship you have with your supervisor, you may want to share certain details of your ongoing treatment. That is your prerogative. You cannot, however, be required to share those details. As part of a medical treatment, that is privileged information, and it would most likely take a court order for your employer to get that from you.

If you do choose to share any details of your treatment, however, be aware that most employers have little or no responsibility to keep that information private. Unlike a doctor or lawyer, whose ethics requirements or relevant federal laws forbid them from sharing client details, your employer can tell anyone he wants about your situation. For this reason, it is best to err on the side of caution when talking to your boss.

If you suspect you may have been treated unfairly, or if you're not sure of what rights you have, consult a legal professional. The area of employee/employer rights (especially employee rights and drug addiction) is a vibrant, constantly-shifting and evolving field, and a lawyer can help you make sense of the laws that may pertain to your particular case.

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