The national opioid epidemic is creating a legal wrinkle in the nation’s workplaces. Workers who are living with addiction are protected under federal law — the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — unless they happen to be currently using drugs illegally.
Defining “Current Use” Proving Challenging
The legal wrinkle comes from trying to determine what “current use” means. Some federal judges have ruled that current use for illegal drugs means up to a few weeks or a few months ago. The US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit said (1) in a decision (2011) that completing a drug and alcohol treatment program doesn’t necessarily give an employee disability protection. The court also said (2) that it wasn’t going to bring in a “bright-line rule” that would set a standard for the number of drug-free days or months would be needed for someone to qualify for ADA protection.
“Bright-line Rule” Definition
A “bright-line rule (3)” is used to clarify a law or regulations that could be read in more than one way. It may be established by a court where the judge determines that the need to make a simple decision is more important than weighing each side of an issue before making a ruling on it.
Opioid-Addicted Workers a Problem for Employers
People who have issues with opioid addiction (which includes prescription pain medications and illegal drugs) and are at risk for overdose are often employed. Workers in this category also present an issue for employers who often want to be fair to their team members, but who also need to ensure that the workplace is safe for everyone.
Medication-assisted treatment is an effective treatment option for opioid addiction. It involves addressing drug cravings and other physical symptoms, which can last for several months, with medication while the client participates in group therapy and individual therapy sessions.
This type of addiction treatment is sometimes frowned upon by employers, who see it as “replacing one type of addiction for another.“ This is a myth since the medications used to treat addiction don’t create a sense of euphoria (a “high”) in the user. They are used only to deal with cravings and reduce the urge to use opioids.
If an employer dismisses an employee who is undergoing treatment or refuses to give them reasonable time off from work to go to a methadone clinic daily, it could be considered discrimination due to disability under the ADA. Medically assisted treatment for opioid addiction can be safely followed under a doctor’s orders for months or years, depending on a client’s needs. The medications used would likely appear on an employer-administered drug test; however, using them doesn’t void the employee’s protection under ADA in the same way that using street drugs would.