While most people think of addicts as unemployed and sometimes homeless, the truth is that most addicts are actually part of the working population. With an estimated 19.7 million U.S. adults suffering from a substance abuse problem, it’s only natural that most would be employed. This can result in both high-functioning and non-high-functioning performance, but it will affect your options when you seek rehab and treatment.
If you’ve decided to go to rehab, you’re making the right choice. Getting help will improve your future, relationships, your health, and will prevent worsening problems. But, if you’re like many, you’re likely concerned about your career. Many people wonder if their employer can fire them for going to rehab. While the short answer is “probably not”, the long answer is a lot more complex and is completely dependent on your profession, your conduct, and your performance while you were addicted. Understanding your rights, options, and responsibilities as an employee are crucial if you are to seek rehab with the best possible scenario. Note that this article offers information only and is not to be relied upon as legal advice.
Your Rights According to the Law
The United States offers several laws protecting the rights of individuals in need of both physical and mental health care. Substance use disorder is classified as a temporary disability, which means that you are protected by law. This also means that your insurer is required to offer coverage and cannot deny you coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition.
Family and Medical Leave Act – The Family and Medical Leave Act allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave without disclosing the reason to your employer. In order to be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months, have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work for an employer with at least fifty employees. Several states have passed laws providing additional family and medical leave protections for workers. This means that if you are eligible you can always request unpaid medical leave from your employer without disclosing your addiction or where you are going. They are not legally allowed to ask about your medical or personal life and you are not required to disclose any personal details. However, you may be asked to provide evidence of need from a medical professional. This statement does not have to include what you are seeking treatment for or any personal information other than that you need medical treatment and it will take X duration of time. This is important, because it allows working and licensed professionals to seek out treatment and rehab without endangering their license, client-base, or standing with a firm or company.
Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act offers several important mandates for individuals seeking rehab. The first is that it qualifies substance abuse as a temporary disability. The second is that it mandates that treatment for substance abuse treatment is a medical right. Your employer cannot legally prevent you from getting treatment and must make allowances for you to do so. It also means that your employer is obliged to allow you to seek rehab using work-based insurance. This regulation, along with the prevalence of substance abuse in the workplace, has led many organizations to begin developing their own substance abuse prevention and treatment programs, which your workplace may provide.
Americans with Disabilities Act – The Americans with Disabilities Act classifies substance abuse as a temporary disability. This means that your employer cannot legally hire, fire, or discriminate against you because of your substance abuse problem. However, this isn’t an all-clear, as there are many considerations that may allow your employer to fire you.
It’s important to read through and understand or review your company contract, work policies, and any HR material on addiction, substance abuse, and rehab. Depending on your employer, these may range from the very lax to the very strict. For example, some contracts will state that any drug use or alcohol use on work premises will result in contract termination. Others will offer stipulations to help you into a drug and alcohol treatment center and to follow up with 12-step meetings or another form of group therapy for addiction.
Navigating your rights here can be fairly difficult. For example, if your contract directly states that you will lose your job if you are caught using or drinking on-premises. Your contract may also state that any illicit substance abuse is against company policy and will result in termination. These regulations can range from the moral to more legitimate concerns surrounding safety, client safety, and firm reputation.
In most cases, if you have signed a contract, you have signed an agreement to those stipulations. If you have signed away rights, you cannot likely win in court, even if the contract directly contradicts law.
So, if your contract states that you will lose your job in case of substance abuse, you should consider taking several steps to avoid losing your job:
- Do not inform your employer of why you are taking medical leave
- Utilize a confidential addiction treatment program designed for working professionals, preferably in another town or even out-of-state
- Seek out confidential 12-step or other support on your return
In most cases, the more often your employer tests for drugs, the less tolerant their substance abuse policy will be.
There are many considerations that may affect your employer’s reaction to your seeking out rehab. Here, it’s important to be aware of the specific context and circumstances, your manager’s attitudes towards substance abuse, and general company policy.
Your Conduct – Your employer is significantly more likely to react positively if your behavior has been, overall, very positive. Individuals who don’t show that they have a problem, don’t engage in high levels of internal conflict, and are otherwise focused and able to work well are significantly less likely to see problems when seeking out rehab. On the other hand, you can expect to see major problems, reviews, or even direct contract termination if you have recently been involved in incidents, especially those involving safety issues, destruction of property, or conflict resulting in failed performance.
This also applies to your conduct outside the organization. If you’ve recently been involved in drunk driving, been arrested, or otherwise been profiled as an intoxicated person, you may be more likely to lose your job.
Your Performance – If your performance is good, your employer is less likely to create a reason to fire you. If you’ve had performance issues, quality issues, or deadline issues, you may want to reconsider alerting your employer to your seeking rehab.
License or Organization – Some licenses, organizations, and companies require a strict code of conduct, including no illicit drugs, no breaches of moral conduct such as driving under influence, and so on. Publicly admitting to breaching these could affect your reputation, client-base, the reputation of your organization, or the sanctity of a license you hold. You may be given a review or your right to practice may be terminated as a result. In this case, it’s advisable to seek out a rehab program designed for professionals, so you know your data is confidential.
Seeking rehab is an important step. You should go to treatment. However, you should also consider how you do so. In most cases, your employer is likely to be supportive of you taking time to treat your disorder. Getting treatment will make you a better employee. In the cases where they won’t, you have legal rights to keep your job or to seek out rehab without alerting your employer to why you are taking leave. No matter what you choose, good luck on your journey towards recovery.