Recently, the football coach for University of Southern California allegedly showed up to a team meeting while he was under the influence of alcohol. ESPN reported this was not the first time the second-year coach was suspected to be impaired at work. He reportedly was intoxicated at a Salute to Troy function in August, which he apologized for after his behavior made national headlines. He was also suspected to be under the influence at a game against Arizona State in September.
The coach was not permitted to attend the practice after the meeting in which he showed up appearing intoxicated. He announced an indefinite leave of absence, but he was subsequently fired one day after announcing his leave. USC said his employment was terminated after considering the team’s best interests.
While employers can, and likely should, terminate workers who come impaired to the workplace, employers must also tread carefully in these situations because there are rules in place to protect people undergoing treatment. A Southern California FMLA attorney knows employers must ensure they are in full compliance with employee protection laws when terminating workers with substance abuse problems.
Protections from Termination for Substance Abuse Issues
Employers must comply with obligations under both FMLA as well as under the Americans with Disabilities Act when dealing with a worker who has a substance abuse or addiction problem.
Employers who have substance abuse problems may be entitled to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in order to undergo treatment for substance abuse. FMLA leave allows an employee unpaid time off to address a medical issue, without risk of losing his or her employment.
In 29 C.F.R. 825.119, federal law indicates substance abuse may be considered a serious health condition an individual is entitled to take a leave of absence to treat. An employer cannot fire or make adverse employment decisions based on an employee’s request for FMLA leave to get help with substance abuse issues. However, leave can be taken for treatment only upon referral by a healthcare provider and the treatment must be provided by a healthcare or home care provider.
When an employee is absent from work due to the use of the substance, rather than absent from work in order to undergo treatment, this absenteeism does not qualify for FMLA leave. Further, although an employer can’t fire an employee for taking FMLA leave, an employer is not prevented from taking employment action against an employee just because the employee is in treatment.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also indicates an individual who is an alcoholic may be considered an individual with disability under ADA. Employers are not permitted to discriminate against addicts who are currently in a rehabilitation program, and must make reasonable accommodation efforts such as allowing time off for rehabilitation. Again, however, this doesn’t provide absolute protection. Alcoholics must meet the same standards of performance as other workers, and employers can discharge employees whose use of alcohol impairs their job performance.
Coming to work impaired, as the USC coach did, clearly seems to be a failure to fulfill job duties, so in this case, USC was likely justified in its termination of the coach. Employees, however, need to know their rights under ADA and FMLA whenever a termination occurs because of a health issue.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Walz v. Ameriprise Fin. Inc. – Mental Illness Discrimination Allegation, March 21, 2015, Orange County Disability Discrimination Lawyer Blog