RWAs Can Help Manage Alcoholic Employees

Although alcoholism is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers may terminate employees who violate agreements to get sober. A U.S. court of appeals recently reaffirmed this principle, ruling in favor of a freight transportation company that fired an employee after he breached a return-to-work agreement (RWA).

The employee was a sales representative for Con-way, Inc. Con-way maintained strict drug and alcohol screening policies to ensure compliance with Department of Transportation regulations. In 2009, Con-way approved the employee's request for leave to enter an alcohol treatment program. Upon returning to work, the employee signed an RWA that required him to remain free of drugs and alcohol. Within a month, the employee relapsed, and Con-way terminated his employment shortly thereafter. The employee sued Con-way, alleging violations of the ADA and other laws.

The ADA prohibits employers from firing employees because of their alcoholism and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees suffering from alcoholism. However, employers may hold alcoholic employees to the performance standards applicable to all employees, and they may discipline, discharge or deny employment if the use of alcohol adversely affects job performance.

In the Con-way case, the court stated that "employers do not violate the ADA merely by entering into return-to-work agreements that impose employment conditions different from those of other employees," and that "although [the employee] was subject to different standards than other Con-way employees who did not sign an RWA, this difference results from the terms of his agreement rather than disability discrimination."

The decision in this case is in line with numerous other decisions recognizing that employers may lawfully terminate an employee because the employee breached an RWA. The key is to ensure that RWAs are properly constructed and applied, with a careful review of each fact situation prior to any adverse action.