FMLA Employee Rights & Employer Obligations

Alcohol Addiction Treatment: Employee’s Rights and Employer’s Obligations Under FMLA

Three in four people with a drug or alcohol addiction work for a living. Clearly, one of the obvious reasons for many people struggling with alcohol addiction to not enter rehab is their fear of losing their job. Once an addict has chosen to seek treatment, they should ideally not have to worry about their job security following such a positive step.  Luckily, the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) does provide some protections.

When a person decides to seek alcohol addiction treatment, it can be a prudent idea to discuss it with the employer.  However, they should first assess the employer’s drug and alcohol policy and the company’s healthcare policy. When the employee speaks upfront with the employer about going into rehabilitation, the hope is that the employer might offer support and guidance, or at least understanding.


Employee’s Rights Under FMLA

The stigma attached with alcohol addiction should not stop an employee from seeking rehab. Employers often have policies in place that will offer protection to employees who want to get professional alcohol abuse treatment. According to the FMLA, an employee can have up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave in a year.

The aim of FMLA is to assist employees coping with their health challenges and responsibilities by permitting them to take unpaid leave for a reasonable time period for specific medical reasons.

The alcohol addict can utilize this time for rehab and recovery and feel assured that they will be placed in the same job upon their return. If the employee discloses their rehabilitation plan to the employer, it would also ensure that their job role is covered by a substitute worker in their absence.

Seeking professional help for alcohol abuse is a highly courageous decision that an employee can make. With as few as 6% of all individuals with addiction issues seeking professional help, taking some time off from work to pursue sobriety is not just the right step professionally, but also a step toward restoring a healthy and satisfying personal life.


Is Alcohol Addiction Treatment Covered by FMLA?

If an employee seeks help for alcohol addiction, it is covered with some conditions by the FMLA. The Act requires that once the employee returns to work from alcohol addiction treatment within the stipulated time period of 12 weeks or less, they must be returned to their original work or an equivalent job position. The employer is prohibited from imposing any kind of financial or non-financial punishment.

The FMLA ensures that an employee will not have to suffer in terms of pay grade or benefits and all the terms and conditions of their previous job post will be honored. If the employee was entitled to receive a bonus prior to their FMLA leave, this bonus would still be on the table.


FMLA Does Not Provide Absolute Protection 

Employees should be aware that the FMLA protection for alcohol addiction treatment comes with certain conditions. Their employment could still be terminated irrespective of whether they are utilizing FMLA leave. This will depend on if the employer has an already established policy that:

  • Has been applied without any discrimination to anyone
  • Has been clearly informed to every employee
  • Has a clause that provides that under specific situations employment could be terminated for alcohol abuse

Therefore, before an employee applies for FMLA leave for alcohol addiction treatment, they should carefully evaluate the employer’s policy in this regard.


Employer’s Obligations

An employer should exercise caution when they choose to impose appropriate disciplinary action on employees who have a poor attendance record because of alcohol abuse.

While courts do recognize that employers should expect their employees to show up regularly pertaining to the fact that this is a vital aspect for most jobs, they may consider an absence during a specifically agreed-upon time period of leave for the purpose of rehabilitation or another treatment for alcohol addiction as part of an employer’s obligation to accommodate the employee’s situation to a reasonable extent.


Employers Are Not Required to Tolerate Off-the-Job Actions

An employer is not under a legal obligation to tolerate alcohol-related off-the-job misconduct that could impact the ability of the employee to perform their job. For instance, if the job involves driving, an employer will have the right to terminate the services of an alcoholic employee who has lost their driver’s license due to driving under the influence of alcohol.

Drinking on the job, or not being able to do your job because of too much drinking in general, can and does result in job loss fairly often. Most organizations feel that rather than dealing with irresponsible employees, and while it may be a shame, some people do have to be terminated.  Furthermore, they may feel that firing a drunk employee is a better alternative than letting that person embarrass the firm or business.


Chances of Job Retention While in Rehab

Once the employer has granted a leave of absence to the employee for alcohol addiction treatment, they will have to protect that position as long as the authorized period of leave has not been exceeded. However, one of the challenges is that the FMLA only applies to employers with at least 50 employees. FMLA based leave rules can also be quite complicated, and if any of the details are not adhered to, it may lead to loss of coverage.

Additional References: U.S. NewsFindLaw