February 15, 2023

How Do We Accommodate Alcoholism or Substance Abuse (Bill’s Story)

Bill has been one of your best employees for over two decades. He works hard, he’s great with customers, and he knows the business inside and out. Over that time Bill has become part of the family, and you just couldn’t imagine running the business without him.

While Bill is generally a quiet guy, you can tell that he’s been struggling since he and his wife separated last year. The split was hard on Bill, and you even gave him a bit of extra vacation time to try and clear his head and get away from it all. When he came back you could tell that Bill was giving it his all, but the spark just was not there in the same way.

Gradually you noticed things taking a darker turn. Bill began to phone in sick more often than usual, and when he does come in he seems to be out of sorts. You’ve occasionally caught Bill napping at his desk, or slurring his words. When he’s attended site visits, customers have complained of smelling alcohol on his breath, and suddenly it all fits together.

You’re at a complete loss as to what to do. You don’t want to fire Bill, far from it, but you’re worried about him and his health, as well as his safety – especially if he’s driving to clients while intoxicated. You’re not impressed with Bill’s conduct, but you’re at a complete loss as to where to turn.

What’s wrong with Bill?

While you are not a medical professional, it does appear that Bill may be dealing with alcoholism, or some sort of other substance use disorder. While he might have started drinking more to deal with emotional trauma, the fact that his alcohol consumption has now impacted his work is a sign that there is a greater issue at play. 

The truth though is that you do not know what’s wrong with Bill, and you cannot inquire directly about any medical diagnosis or condition. What you can do though, as his employer, is ask if Bill is okay. Employers have what is known as a ‘duty to inquire,’ meaning they are responsible for checking in with employees in these sorts of situations and seeing if they need any assistance. 

If Bill refuses any offer for help, then you as an employer cannot press further. Yet if Bill tells you that there’s a problem and that he needs help, that’s where you can then swing into action.

What are my duties under human rights law?

If Bill is suffering from alcoholism and acknowledges that he needs assistance, he has just disclosed to you that he has a disability. While we still stigmatize addiction in many circles, when it comes to the workplace it is no different than Bill having cancer, breaking his leg, or being hard of hearing. 

The first line of support that you can provide Bill, should your company have access to one, is a link to the Employee Assistance Program (“EAP”). EAPs are typically offered by benefits providers and are meant to support exactly these sorts of issues, including access to counseling or even rehabilitation services depending on the plan. 

Even if you do not have access to an EAP, you are still required to accommodate Bill on the grounds of his disability. This can mean working with Bill, in conjunction with his medical team, to come up with an accommodation plan that makes sense. If Bill needs time off work for medical appointments, or because he is away at an in-patient treatment facility, his job must be protected during any unpaid leaves of absence. 

The other challenge that Bill might present is absenteeism. If he is overusing his sick days, or simply not showing up for work on time or at all, his absenteeism is most likely related to his addiction. While it may be a broad policy to penalize employees with multiple unexplained absences, any handling of Bill’s situation must be done carefully in light of his illness. 

How far do I have to go to accommodate Bill?

One of the greatest challenges that employers face when accommodating employees with a disability is the requirement to provide accommodations to the point of undue hardship. This means that even if accommodations are inconvenient, or have some cost to the business, you’ll need to go that little bit out of your way to make that happen. 

This may include sponsoring in-patient addiction treatment.  While the monetary investment can be significant, it can also go a long way to demonstrating good faith in the accommodation process. It may also get Bill healthy again.

Other options may include adjusting Bill’s schedule. If Bill provides medical documentation from his doctor which shows that he is unable to start working before 10 a.m. for example, you can work with Bill to arrange a reasonable accommodation that has him starting and ending later in the day. This might also help to prevent absenteeism if it gives Bill a chance to restore his health somewhat before coming to work in the mornings. 

While Bill needs to be accommodated, both you as an employer and he as an employee have a duty to maintain a healthy and safe workplace. That means that despite his addiction, Bill is not allowed to place himself or anyone else in jeopardy because of it. This may mean restricting his driving, especially on client visits, or offering that he visits clients using a taxi, rideshare, or other methods of transit. 

The ultimate question that you may have as Bill’s employer is whether or not you can conduct random drug and alcohol testing, on him or on other employees. The short answer is likely no, depending on the nature of the business. A reactionary drug and alcohol testing policy are generally discriminatory under human rights law unless you can prove that the test is a bona fide requirement of the job.

In other words, if Bill’s role primarily involved operating heavy equipment and involved serious health and safety risks, then a policy likely would pass muster. If, however, most of Bill’s work can be done behind a desk, then any random testing is likely unnecessary for the work, and would be considered discriminatory under human rights law. 

One last caveat – if Bill refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem, or refuses to participate in any accommodation plans, you may be able to discipline him just as you would any other employee, including potential termination of his employment. Accommodations need to be reasonable, and employees need to participate in the process. If he refuses to do so and refuses to behave reasonably, you may be left with few other options. 

The Upshot

Being Bill’s employer is not easy. You do care deeply about a long-term, faithful employee, and want to see him get well and get the help he needs. You also worry about the impact his drinking may have on the business, whether it’s absenteeism, inappropriate behaviour towards colleagues, or behaviour that puts himself or others at risk.
If you’re trying to figure out how to accommodate someone like Bill, don’t go it alone. We’re here to help. With two decades of experience in employment law, we’ve helped employers handle employees like Bill before, and helped them do so in a way that keeps the workplace safe and Bill’s dignity intact. Contact us today to set up a consultation.