top of page
  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

Substance Dependence: Is it a Disability?

Yes, substance dependence is considered a disability, and the federal government obligates employers to offer reasonable accommodation if the worker meets job duty standards. Ongoing illegal drug use receives no protections from the law. But recovering addicts are protected from discrimination for past drug addiction.

No matter if you have an alcohol or drug problem, employers are permitted to expect a certain level of performance from every employee. The addition of medical marijuana as a treatment for certain disabilities creates an extra difficulty for employers. Workplaces are also allowed to require employees not to use alcohol or drugs while working and to not be under the influence of such while at work.

Employer Alcohol and Drug Work Rules

Whistleblower Rights: How Employees Are Protected When They Expose An Employer’s Illegal Actions

While alcoholics and recovering drug addicts are supposed to receive accommodations in the workplace, poor performance and sloppy conduct is unacceptable. Employers can demand that employees not be in possession or consume alcohol or drugs while at work. In fact, employees cannot argue that employers should accommodate showing up for work while under the influence.

Example of Reasonable Accommodation

Juan arrived to work late for the fourth time in a month, and his manager pulled him aside and issued him a written warning. After receiving the written warning, Juan shares that he’s late due to his alcohol problem, and he’s hoping to seek treatment. His manager does not need to offer a work accommodation that will support his addiction, but if Juan asks for time off for rehabilitation, the employer may be obligated by the law to provide the time off.

Example of Disability Discrimination

Melissa’s boss doesn’t enforce the start times for employees. It’s common for employees to arrive late. When Melissa was late though, her boss pulled her aside and reprimanded her, saying, “I’m worried because before your tardiness was due to your addiction.” Since none of Melissa’s coworkers are reprimanded for lateness, this is discrimination prompted by her addiction disability.

Employers must be wise in their interactions with employees who have a substance abuse problem. In most cases, employers cannot fire a worker due to the addiction but because of workplace rule violations. This narrow line is often scrutinized by employers, employees, and lawyers.

Questions and Answers: Alcohol and Drug Dependence in the Workplace

Knowing how to deal with alcohol and drug dependence in the workplace can be challenging for employers and employees alike. To help, these questions and answers should point you in the right direction with handling your own work situation.

man and women bent over paperwork

Am I expected to meet the same work standards as other employees despite my substance problem?

Absolutely, yes. When an employer has an employee code of conduct and performance in place, every employee is expected to behave under that code. A recovering alcoholic or drug user cannot expect to receive a reasonable accommodation that gives them a new special standard for work performance. Therefore, regular absences, insubordination, or accident that occur due to the addiction can be punishable as long as every employee receives the same treatment for these actions.

Can my employer discipline me for drinking or using on the job?

Yes, since the ADA allows employers to set a standard of not working and using alcohol or drugs on the job, employees can be disciplined for ignoring this rule even if it’s caused by their addiction. Employers also can demand employees arrive to work free from the influence of drugs or alcohol. A number of federal laws, specifically the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, lay out regulations for alcohol and drugs in the workplace. Some industries have tougher regulations for employees such as law enforcement positions, transportation employees, railroad engineers, and other safety sensitive jobs.

Is my employer allowed to make me go to rehabilitation rather than writing me up for a misconduct prompted by my addiction?

Employers are given the right to discipline employees who fail to meet work standards due to their substance addiction. However, employers may choose to suggest that an employee takes part in rehabilitation rather than discipline the employee. Of course, an employer can both discipline and encourage rehabilitation. But, the ADA does not obligate employers to start employee assistance programs or suggest rehabilitation.

Should my employer offer me an accommodation for my first write-up if I believe the situation occurred because of my substance addiction?

sad female nurse

Here’s the thing. Employers are guided by their history of response to such situations. If any other employee is fired for a first offense, then it’s within their rights to fire you, even if you’ve requested accommodation.

For illegal drug use, the ADA offers no protections to employees. Therefore, an employer can discipline however they see fit. Employers can choose to terminate the individual or give that person leave to receive necessary treatment.

For alcoholism, the ADA does provide protections to employees. And yet, if it is an employer’s routine to terminate employees for infractions, then the disability of alcoholism will not save an employee from termination. If the employee doesn’t request an accommodation for the discipline, then the employer should. Together, the employer and employee should go through a process to determine the best accommodation. Employees should be aware that the employer is permitted to ask questions about the connection of alcoholism to work performance to help figure out the right accommodation.

Does my boss have to give me a last chance agreement instead of termination because my substance addiction continues to cause poor performance?

Once again, it comes down to your employer’s workplace policies and past handling of similar situations. The ADA does not obligate an employer to provide a last chance agreement for employees with the disability of addiction. But if your employer always offers a last chance agreement to other employees but does not offer one to you, you may have a case. A last chance agreement usually requires that the employee with the disability can retain their job if they seek rehabilitation. But to break the last chance agreement is to be terminated.

If you believe that you deserve a reasonable accommodation or you’ve been terminated for your disability of alcoholism, consult an employment lawyer for your legal options under the law.

Don’t hesitate, talk to an attorney: (412) 626-5626 or

0 views0 comments


Good Logo.png

Our firm has over 10 years of experience providing world-class legal representation to those who need it. We help employees, entrepreneurs, businesses, and individuals. Based out of Pittsburgh, we work with clients across Pennsylvania.  See what our clients say about us:


"They kept me up to date on all aspects of the case

and were attentive to my needs."

- Donald Bryan


One of our attorneys will review your case within 24 hours,

and we will contact you to discuss further. 

You can also call us directly at (412) 626-5626

Thanks for contacting us! We will be in touch soon

bottom of page