When should addicts be protected by disability laws?
In Oregon, a police officer was fired in 2011 for driving an unmarked police car under the influence while off-duty. He refused a field sobriety test after driving the vehicle into a ditch. The arresting officer commented that the man was one of the most impaired people he’d ever arrested in fifteen years on the force. The impaired officer pleaded guilty to the offense and received treatment. The city and several officials are now facing a six million dollar lawsuit from the terminated officer, who is arguing that his alcoholism is a disability and he should not have been released from his job for being an alcoholic.
Constance Scharff, Ph.D. (link is external) is an internationally recognized speaker and author on the topics of addiction recovery, women’s health, and overcoming trauma. She is the author, under her Hebrew name Ahuva Batya, of the award-winning poetry collection, “Meeting God at Midnight(link is external)” and co-author of the Amazon.com #1 bestselling book “Ending Addiction for Good(link is external).”
Editor: Muhammad Talha
When should an employer terminate employment for an alcoholic and under what circumstances should the alcoholic first receive treatment?
I am not an attorney, but I am an addiction researcher, treatment professional, and woman with fifteen years of recovery from alcoholism. As a woman who was a two-liters-of-hard-liquor-a-day drinker, I have a fair bit of insight into the minds of alcoholics. What follows are only my opinions. I think you will find, however, that they are in line with the ideas of most of those in the addiction treatment industry as well as the thoughts conveyed in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, a text that has been guiding thoughts on addiction and addiction treatment for more than seventy years.
Addiction Might Be a Disability, but It Is Not a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card
While the alcoholic may not be able to control his drinking, he does not lose his understanding of right and wrong. When I was drinking, I knew that I was hurting myself and potentially endangering others if I got behind the wheel of a car. I knew that I was subject to the laws of the land and that if I got pulled over while intoxicated, I was going to go to jail, lose my license, and probably lose my job because I worked for an organization that had a morality clause for all employees. I knew right from wrong. I knew that treatment was available, and I drank anyway. This police officer’s situation is no different. He knowingly broke the law by driving while intoxicated. If he was not an alcoholic, he would have been fired for such an offense. Should his alcoholism now save his job? I would suggest not. Like all employees, particularly police officers, we are subject to the law of the land and must live with the consequences of our actions.
When Should Alcoholics Be Protected?
Had the police officer walked into his supervisor’s office and said, “I am an alcoholic and I need help. I am going to receive treatment and will be away from my post for three months,” this is a situation in which addiction is a disability and his job should be protected. Being away from his post could be a difficulty for the agency, but receiving treatment for a life-threatening condition trumps that hardship. Those who need and seek treatment should be allowed to receive it without the threat of losing their jobs. This is a case when alcoholism and drug addiction should be treated as a disability and the addict is given protection.
What if the police officer had been sober for several years but hadn’t told anyone – and then someone found out? Maybe the officer behaved embarrassingly prior to becoming part of the police force. In this case, the individual too should be protected. The officer in this circumstance has no obligation to disclose his previous problem, in the same way, that someone who had cancer years ago needs not to disclose that to a new employer. The individual too should be protected in the event that there is a morality clause element to his/her work. If the alcoholic behaved in embarrassing, but lawful ways, s/he has no responsibility to disclose those prior acts and should not lose his/her job for them.
I feel for the police officer who lost his job. Alcoholics make poor choices while they are drinking. But the fact of the matter is that the police officer broke the law in a major and dangerous way. This is not something that, in my opinion, is or should be protected by a claim of disability. The alcoholic cannot expect to endanger the lives of others and not face the consequences for that.
By the way, if I drink again, I will lose my job. One cannot be an effective addiction researcher or represent an addiction treatment facility and be a fall-down drunk, as I once was. Yes, addiction can be a disability, but there are also limits on what an employer must endure from someone who knows that treatment is available, but hasn’t sought it yet.