A former Oregon police officer recently filed a lawsuit against the City of Gresham for firing him after he was charged with driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII). The officer, through his attorneys, has alleged that he had alcoholism, which constitutes a disability under the law, and that his employer had a duty to provide an accommodation for his disability.
Alcoholism carries a great deal of stigma, and it isn’t uncommon for legal actions like this to be misunderstood But if you respond to news like this by scoffing at the officer’s claims, keep an eye on the details. The officer doesn’t seem to be arguing–and the law does not require–that his employer tolerate him being drunk on the job.
Instead, under both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Oregon’s parallel law, an employer can’t simply use their dislike of a disability to fire an employee; as long as the worker can still do the job with a reasonable accommodation the employee is protected. 42 U.S.C. § 12112; ORS 659A.112. And even though a worker with a substance abuse problem may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation, “[a]n employer may require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol or illegally used drugs at the workplace.” ORS 659A.127(3).
As a Portland employment attorney, I have helped employees with disabilities–including alcoholism–reach positive outcomes in disputes with their employers. The key is determining in any given case what kind of accommodation is reasonable. For an employee with alcoholism, it might be reasonable for the employer to let the employee have a slightly lengthened leave time to attend a treatment program.
In any case, the employer is almost always required to engage in a discussion with the employee to determine if anything can be done to help manage the employee’s disability so that he or she can still get the job done–even if the employee is never allowed to be intoxicated while on the clock. And that’s a system that helps protect both the interests of the employer and the rights of the individual worker.