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Alcoholism and the ADA in Employment

After the firing of USC coach Steve Sarkisian in October, there was some discussion about whether his termination was lawful because he apparently has a drinking problem. Even if you’re not a football fan, the situation provides an excellent opportunity for employers to learn about alcoholism in the workplace.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Sarkisian was put on an “indefinite” leave of absence after reportedly showing up to a team meeting intoxicated. According to numerous sources, Sarkisian had previously attended a variety of school events where he appeared to be drunk. One day after his leave began, he was fired.
Those saying his termination might not be legal are doing so because they know that alcoholism is considered to be a disability according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and employers are required to reasonably accommodate employees who are or become disabled.
In the article, “Alcoholism and how USC may have violated ADA by firing Steve Sarkisian,” on, the author states, “One common form of accommodation with respect to alcohol dependency is an unpaid leave of absence while the employee seeks treatment or other counseling. Frankly, it would be a red flag if an employer that grants an individual a leave of absence (for any reason, let alone a disability) then decides to terminate that same individual shortly after the leave was given. But that’s exactly what USC did.”
All of that’s true but, as the saying goes, there’s more to the story. After being clearly intoxicated at a USC pep rally last August, Sarkisian denied he had a drinking problem, but said he would go into treatment, according to a story on
Evidently, he didn’t seek treatment and he definitely continued to drink. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an employer generally has no duty to provide an accommodation to an employee who has not asked for an accommodation and who denies having a drinking problem.
Additionally, the ADA allows an employer to discipline, discharge, or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct.
So, what can employers learn from this story?
First, if you employ five or more employees, you cannot refuse to hire or promote or fire someone because of being a recovering alcoholic (the ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees, but California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which also protects persons with disabilities, applies to employers with 5 or more employees).
Next, if employees tell you (before you discover it) that they need to seek treatment for alcoholism, you are required to begin an interactive process to try to reasonably accommodate them. Such accommodations are usually time off without pay to seek treatment.
Finally, it is lawful to discipline all employees whose use of alcohol interferes with their job.
One more thought: it’s said that people need to hit rock bottom before they are willing to confront an addiction. Perhaps this is it for Sarkisian. Sometimes termination is the best thing employers can do for employees to help them turn their lives around.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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