For those with a growing substance addiction problem, rapid changes become the norm. For many, it’s frightening to witness as important priorities start to slip, as relationships end prematurely because of your out-of-control drug or alcohol use, and as constant financial worries become just another depressing part of your life.
As someone who is sliding helplessly down the spiral of addiction, like a drowning sailor, arms flailing, you begin to reach out for and grasp at what’s left.
For those who have managed (usually, by hook or by crook) to retain their employment status, work becomes your only clear way out of this mess. If you can just keep your job, maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance.
However, lose your job, and you may as well hit the street-corner right now, cardboard box living accommodation in hand, and definitely via the neighborhood liquor store or your local, friendly drug dealer.
Whatever has prompted you to begin thinking seriously about attending substance addiction treatment in the first place, keep hold of that thought. A tight hold. The chances are, if you fail to get the help you need right now, your problem will soon become a diagnosable substance use disorder (SUD), and then, before you know it, you are exactly what you feared you’d become – a chronic drug addict or a chronic alcoholic.
You probably have a fair idea of what will happen if you fail to get treatment for your worsening substance addiction problem. In a situation like this, you need to know something else, too – you need to know your rights. You need to know exactly where you stand as an employed person in need of medical treatment, and, in that respect, there are laws – federal laws – that exist to protect you.
This article will inform you of those rights, and under which federal laws, policies, and regulations those rights exist, and hopefully what you read here will help to put your mind at ease. The rest, as they say, is entirely up to you.
Your Rights Under The Law
The specific laws designed to protect the employed from seeking treatment for substance use issues are as follows (please ensure you read the section after this which explains how to use these rights correctly):
1. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. It applies to public agencies (including local, State, and Federal employers), local education agencies (schools), and private sector employers who employ 50 or more employees for at least 20 workweeks for at least 1 year.
Additionally, the FMLA only requires unpaid leave. However, you can use accrued paid vacation leave and/or paid sick or family leave to cover all or part of the length of the treatment. Treatment for substance use issues comes under the following stated reason: to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
However (and this is exceptionally important), if you are currently using substances, the FMLA does not apply to absences caused by drug or alcohol use outside of treatment. In other words, an employee isn’t permitted to take FMLA leave simply because he is an alcoholic and cannot make it to work.
Note: Please use the link provided to learn more.
2. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Federal law prohibits your employer from discriminating against employees based on disability. Many people with past or current drug or alcohol problems are protected from discrimination by both the The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and The Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
However, just as the FMLA doesn’t cover active substance users, the ADA has a similar yet slightly different caveat, in that an alcoholic is generally a person with a disability under the ADA, whereas someone who is addicted to drugs is protected under the ADA only if he or she is not currently using illegal drugs.
How Your Employer is Protected by Law
The laws above will protect you if you have a substance use issue, but only to a degree. However, because both laws do not cover active illegal drug use, to some extent, your employer is protected, too. Here is a summary of your employer’s protection under these laws:
- If you are currently using illegal drugs, you do not qualify as an individual with a disability if your employer decides to take action concerning your drug use
- Your employer can ban the illegal use of drugs at your workplace
- It is not a violation of the ADA for an employer to give tests for the illegal use of drugs
- You can be fired or denied employment if you are currently using illegal drugs
- Your employer can conduct drug tests to detect the use of illegal drugs
However, remember, your employer cannot discriminate against you if you have a history of drug addiction, but are no longer actively abusing substances.
How To Use Your Rights To Access Addiction Treatment
It’s one thing knowing your rights, knowing the specific laws, and how they protect you in situations where drug or alcohol abuse and substance addiction is involved, but it doesn’t end there. How you actually use those rights in terms of your employment (basically, ensuring you do things “by the book”) makes a big difference, too.
According to published reports, an estimated 10% to 25% of the U.S. population is working while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Remember, your employer isn’t obliged to protect your job if your drug or alcohol use is impairing your ability to do your job and/or you are endangering yourself or your coworkers. However, they will protect your job if you leave to attend treatment.
Furthermore, there are a range of treatment options, eg. inpatient programs, outpatient programs with flexible hours (for those working or with obligations), insurance-covered rehab programs, and free detox centers.
Here’s a short guide to the best way to handle informing your employer(s) of your need to seek substance use treatment:
- Have the conversation sooner rather than later, and inform your manager before telling any coworkers.
- Know your company’s policies, eg. read through your hiring paperwork or look online for details on your company’s policy and resources for struggling employees. If you can’t find any information, check with Human Resources.
- Have your treatment plan in place, if you’re asked. You can contact rehab centers that offer treatment to people who are working or who are taking leave before making it “official.”
- Be 100% honest!
Lastly, you may find that your employer operates an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs are great ways to access to screening, treatment referrals, and follow-up care. These programs are completely confidential, and if your employer offers one, you should take advantage of it. Your Human Resources department will have all the details.
There you go. As we said earlier, the rest is up to you. Safe journey.