If alcohol use is causing one of your employees to perform badly, show up late or endanger his fellow workers, you may be tempted to fire him. Before you do, keep in mind that federal law considers alcoholism a disease. Depending on the circumstances, you may be violating anti-discrimination laws if you fire an employee with a drinking problem without first giving him the opportunity to overcome his addiction.

Americans With Disabilities Act

Alcoholic workers are primarily protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA. This federal law classifies alcoholism as a disability if it substantially limits a major life activity. Employees who can show that they have a problem with uncontrollable drinking, and that the problem prevents them from performing their job, are entitled to receive “due accommodation” from their employer. In practical terms, ADA requires employers to grant special leave to to enable the employee to attend a rehabilitation program. ADA applies to any business with 15 or more employees.

Family Medical Leave Act

The Family Medical Leave Act sits alongside ADA. Under this statute, employers may not terminate an employee who takes extended absences in order to obtain treatment for alcoholism. This reflects the broader public policy of encouraging alcoholics to seek rehabilitation without fear over losing their jobs. After their leave, the employee is entitled to be returned to the same or a similar position.

Employment Exceptions

Federal law does not protect employees who abuse alcohol while at work. If you catch your employee drinking on the job, you may fire him without following ADA’s due accommodation process. Similarly, you can fire an employee who physically cannot perform his job due to his alcohol abuse, such as having his driver's license revoked.

Practical Application

Under ADA, you’re entitled to hold your alcoholic employee to the same standards as every other employee. In other words, you don’t have to change the nature of his work, or forgive mistakes, absenteeism, excessive sick days or erratic behavior where other employees would be held to account. Your legal duty is limited to providing due accommodation in the form of time off for rehabilitation, counseling or other employee assistance programs. Document any verbal or written warnings to comply with your organization's termination protocols.

If the Problem Persists

Offering due accommodation is not an open-ended obligation. You don’t have to tolerate persistent relapses or an employee who simply buries his head in the sand. When you offer due accommodation under ADA, you have the right to assume that the problem will be fixed. If, despite treatment, your employee continues to underperform, you may terminate his employment.