You Have the Right To Seek Support: The Legalities of Recovery

drunk businessman sitting drunk in office

You’re an addict. Let’s pretend for a moment that you live in a bubble--a bubble where once you decide to treat your addiction, your life freezes and you can go to a treatment facility for a few weeks and everything in the outside world will be exactly as you left it when you get back.

Even if that were the case, treatment centers are intimidating. Detox is difficult; therapy is personal and can get intense. Just by making the decision to go to rehab, you have admitted to yourself that you have a serious problem and that you need help.

Now, let’s return to real life – no more bubble. Recovering from addiction is hard enough on its own, and it’s even more difficult when you consider the constant pressures of day-to-day life.

Namely, we’re talking about your job. Many people are already intimidated by treatment centers, and then when you throw in concerns about how a trip to a treatment center will affect their career (and therefore, livelihood), a lot of people who are in need of treatment refuse to even think of it as an option.

Know that you have rights. Getting the help you need doesn’t have to wreck your career. Here are answers to 5 the most common questions working people have when considering addiction treatment:

See Also: How to Answer "Do You Smoke or Drink Alcohol?"

1. Can I Get Fired?

boss firing employee

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to all state and local public organizations and all private employers with more than 15 employees, prevents employers from discriminating against the disabled. Under the ADA, alcoholism is considered a disability.

As such, it’s illegal for an employer to fire you solely because you’re an alcoholic. But, if you’re addicted to illegal drugs, you are not considered disabled by the ADA. So, if you are going to rehab for heroine, cocaine, methamphetamine, or some other banned substance, you could indeed be fired for simply being an addict.

The alcohol exception doesn’t mean that you can drink excessively at work, act belligerent, and expect the ADA to stop you from being terminated. That sort of reckless and unprofessional behavior is enough of a transgression that an employer can fire you without any worry of legal repercussions.

And even if you’re never drunk at work, addiction will still likely take its toll on your work performance.

The ‘functioning alcoholic’ is a common trope in movies and on television, from the glamorous ad executives on Mad Men to the pill-popping Dr. House. These characters may have their struggles, but in real life, the struggles are much more pronounced.

Substance abuse has its way of making productive workers less so. When a stressor presents itself – passed over for a promotion, domestic trouble, general anxiety, etc. – addicts are known to take a day or two off work to escape stress with their substance of choice. As they spiral deeper into addiction, these absences become more frequent and turn into a serious problem - in many cases a termination-worthy offense.   

Also, just because you made it to the office doesn’t mean that you’ve escaped the consequences of substance abuse. Addicts can be extremely unproductive, as they’re often irritable and distracted by cravings. They’re also likely in relatively poor shape fitness-wise, which can have a negative effect on productivity.

So… back to the original question. In most cases, no, you cannot get fired for being an addict, but behavior caused by your problem can certainly get you fired.

It’s a race against the clock – which is why you want to get the treatment you need as soon as possible. Most workers have a healthcare plan through their employer, and there’s a good chance that that plan covers rehab costs.

If you get fired before you seek addiction treatment, then you lose your employer-provided insurance, and you’ll have to foot the bill for rehab yourself. That can be quite a large bill. But if you go to rehab before you get fired, employer-provided insurance may cover some of the cost.

2. Will My Job Be Waiting For Me?

Since (in most cases) you can’t technically be fired for being addicted to legal substances, your spot should be waiting for you when you get back from an addiction treatment facility.

Be warned, though – if your boss has a personal issue with substance use, they may start paying extra close attention to you in case you slip up and provide them with a real reason they can use to justify termination.

3. Can I Keep It A Secret?

businesswoman telling a secret to colleague in the office

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which applies to all federal, state, and local public organizations and all private employers with more than 50 employees, allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave every year.

Under FMLA, it is illegal for employers to deny medical leave or to take any punitive action against an employee for requesting medical leave.

FMLA also allows you to keep the fact that you’re taking time off to treat your addiction private from your employer. All they’ll know is that you were absent for an undisclosed medical reason.

4. Will I Be Treated Differently By Co-Workers?

They might. People can be petty. If your co-workers are truly harassing you, then it’s a matter worth bringing to your human resources representative. But, keep in mind that one of the primary goals of therapy is to stop allowing outside pressures (this includes gossip) to upset you.

Most people, however, will respect you for being brave enough to admit you have a problem and actually do something about it.

5. How Do I Juggle It All?

Addiction recovery isn’t over when you leave a treatment center. It’s never over, not really. No matter how many hours of therapy you complete, all it takes is one stressful event in the future for the urge to use to pop up all over again.

In rehab, your schedule is wide open. There’s plenty of time for therapy and other activities that motivate you to change your behavior and recover from addiction.

But once you’re out, there’s much less time available for such activities. There are only so many hours in a day.

The ADA stipulates that employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to their employees. This means that you have some leverage, if necessary, to change your work hours to make it easier for you attend AA meetings and outpatient therapy.

See Also: 5 Ways to Have Fun Without Alcohol

Never forget that as a worker in the United States, you have rights. If you work for the government or at a medium-to-large company, you can’t be fired just because you’re seeking treatment for addiction to a legal substance. It is critically important, though, that you seek treatment before the production-impairing side-effects of substance abuse gives your boss a legitimate reason to fire you.

Have you ever been fired for seeking help with addiction? Your thoughts and comments below please...