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Drunk — and Disabled?

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Drunk — and Disabled?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, alcoholism is a disability. However, an alcoholic can be held to the same standards as other workers. He can be disciplined and even terminated if alcoholism interferes with work. Also, if an alcoholic employee comes to work while drinking or drunk, he can be fired.

In a somewhat unusual case, Buzzard v. Dakota, Minnesota &  Eastern  Railroad Corp., decided by a federal district court in Minnesota, an alcoholic employee was at the center. It’s unusual for a couple of reasons. The employee didn’t claim his alcoholism was a disability but that it impaired the major life activity of caring for himself. It’s also unusual because the employer bent over backwards to help the employee.

When the employee was hired, he told the employer about his 20-year history of alcoholism. He said he had licked this demon, and the employer decided to give him a chance, even explaining how the employer’s EAP worked in the event of a relapse. He did have a relapse – several of them. The employer finally required the employee to sign a last chance agreement and, even then, gave him more chances to shape up. The employer finally had enough and fired the employee.

The employee sued the employer for disability discrimination. He said he was an alcoholic, his alcoholism interfered with a major life activity, and the employer had regarded him as having a disability. In dismissing the case, the court found that the only thing his alcoholism interfered with was his job and any interference with some major life activity was only temporary. Further, the employer couldn’t have regarded the employee as being disabled, because the employee had told the employer about his alcoholism.

This case demonstrates something I’ve always said. Alcoholism is a disability — but not much of one.

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