There are millions of people grappling with untreated substance use disorder who simply cannot gain or maintain employment because of their disease, however that is not the case for everyone faced with active addiction. It is a common misconception that having an addiction to drugs or alcohol means that a person cannot possibly work or achieve success in their career. Countless people with active addiction get to work on time, accomplish their daily goals, and even get promoted. But eventually, no matter how functional an addict or alcoholic may be, the disease can catch up with them.
Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. It can affect a homeless person living on the streets in the same manner that it can affect the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In some ways, addiction serves as an equalizer between people from all different backgrounds. Continuing on with an untreated addiction can and will cause death regardless of what kind of job a person holds. If you are currently employed and simultaneously experiencing a substance use disorder, you are likely facing several different challenges — one of which being how to get help without compromising your job.
Addiction Stigma in the Workplace
There is a significantly more amount of acceptance surrounding addicts and alcoholics in today’s world, however that does not mean that previously held stigmas have been eradicated. Even the most understanding of people can grapple with seeing past a person’s addiction and accepting it for the disease that it is. Things are no different in the workplace, and the concerns that you may have regarding the next steps in your life can produce a huge sense of anxiety. For example, the stigma surrounding addiction may cause you to worry that:
- Your co-workers will judge you, gossip about you, and/or avoid working alongside of you
- Your bosses and supervisors may think that every time you make a mistake or have trouble accomplishing something that it is because you are under the influence
- You may be treated differently (e.g. only given the easy assignments or given more days off than others)
But above all else, you are likely most concerned that if you come forward about your need for substance abuse treatment that you will be immediately fired or left without a job to return to. These are all completely valid and rational concerns, especially given how much addiction remains stigmatized in American society. However, there are protections put in place to help prevent this type of treatment, allowing you to feel more comfortable asking for what you need when you need it without fear of being fired.
FMLA and ADA
The same question may be ruminating in your thoughts over and over — “can my employer fire me for going to rehab?” Of course you are concerned that your career could be jeopardized by going to rehab, but with the help of FMLA and ADA, you can reap the benefits of certain protections so you do not need to be concerned about being fired for going to rehab.
The Family and Medical Leave Act, of FMLA, was developed in 1993 under the Clinton Administration. It requires employers to provide employees with job protection and unpaid leave for medical and family reasons that are qualified under the act. If you want to seek professional addiction treatment and want to utilize FMLA to do so, you must meet the following requirements:
- Work for a covered employer, with “covered” meaning:
- A private-sector employer with 50 or more employees that work 20+ weeks per year
- Any local, state, or government agency
- Any public or private elementary or secondary school
- Have worked for the employer for 12+ months (does not have to be consecutive)
- Have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours during the last 12 months prior to your requested leave
- Work in an area where your employer has at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius
FMLA allows you to seek and obtain professional addiction treatment without fear of workplace repercussions for doing so. This means that your employer cannot take any type of disciplinary action against you for receiving addiction treatment, even if it means that you need to take a leave from work. However, it is important to understand that your employer has the lawful right to discipline your behaviors related to your substance abuse should they violate the workplace agreement. An example of this would be being put on a temporary administrative leave for coming to work under the influence. Another example would be getting demoted as a result of not completing required tasks because of your substance abuse. Any disciplinary action taken against you because you are attending addiction treatment, however, is illegal.
With FMLA, you are given 12 weeks’ worth of unpaid leave with the promise of a job to return to. It is advised to put together a written agreement between you and your employer of your employer’s expectations for when you return to help bring trust and accountability to both parties.
The American Disability Act, or ADA, is something you can enact in the event that you want to seek professional addiction treatment. According to the ADA National Network, you are considered to have a disability if you have:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or;
- A history of an impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities or;
- Been regarded as having such an impairment
Addiction, regardless of if it is active or not, is considered a disability under the ADA because it causes neurological problems that can interfere with positive daily functioning. You will be fully protected under the ADA if you:
- Have been successfully rehabilitated and are abstinent from substance abuse
- Are currently participating in an addiction treatment program and are abstinent from substance abuse
- Are incorrectly regarded as abusing drugs
Under the ADA, you are not only protected if you decide to obtain professional addiction treatment, but you are also allowed certain accommodations to help maintain your sobriety. These accommodations can include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Reasonable adjustment of work schedule
- Accommodating the participation in local community support groups such as AA or NA
- Allowing for a leave of absence to seek professional treatment
If you are in need of professional addiction treatment or any other help that your employer is legally obligated to provide, do not be afraid to ask. Most employers support the wellness of their employees, even if that means they have to be without them for a period of time or make special accommodations for them.