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Alcoholism and Sobriety: Can The Americans with Disabilities Act Be Helpful?

Living with alcoholism can be debilitating, lonely, and can also cause major issues between you and your employer. According to, 1.1 million New York adults have abused alcohol within the past year alone, whereas only 1.5% of those people have received treatment.

If you are an alcoholic who is currently employed and wants to obtain treatment, the Americans with Disabilities Act may offer you protection so that you can be honest with your employer and request an accommodation.

Although alcoholism is considered an impairment rather than a disability under the ADA, your employer must provide you with the “reasonable accommodation” of unpaid time off to participate in treatment if you can show that the alcoholism has significantly impaired your ability to perform “either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various categories as compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and ability,” or you are “unable to perform one or more major life activities that the average person in the general population can perform.” The NYC and NYS Human Rights Laws also offer similar protections for inactive alcoholic employees, i.e. those in treatment or seeking treatment and committed to stopping.

Moreover, employees of the government in New York City are well  positioned to get treatment, which is fortunate given that the government is currently the largest employer in New York City.  If you are an employee of the federal government and have alcohol dependency, your employer must accommodate you by: (1) advising you of counseling services; (2) giving you a “firm choice” between discipline and treatment; (3) allowing you to participate in outpatient treatment; (4) if that fails, allowing you to participate in an inpatient program; and (5) if you finish the program but suffer a relapse and work performance is unsatisfactory, discharge is allowed.

If you believe that you are entitled to a reasonable accommodation similar to those mentioned above, approach your employer to discuss receiving unpaid time off for treatment. But be weary of the fact that the law does not provide much leniency for alcohol related misconduct in the workplace. If you are reprimanded for such misconduct, your employer is not required to give you additional unpaid time off. Your employer is also able to hold you to same standard as other employees and dismissal for unsatisfactory conduct relating to alcoholism is legal. And, if you are continuing to illegally abuse drugs of alcohol, your employer need not provide you with any accommodation at all.

Although alcoholics are not offered the same protections as those with recognized disabilities under the ADA, you still have the opportunity to get treatment so that you can remain employed. If you are seeking an accommodation for treatment, contact a lawyer with expertise regarding protection under the ADA.

Christopher Davis is an experienced employment litigator specializing in class actions, overtime wage recovery, discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, and Wall Street bonus disputes. Before entering private practice, Mr. Davis served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office where he prosecuted violent crimes as a member of the Sex Crimes Unit.

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