Digging to Roam

The Family and Medical Leave Act and Addiction Treatment

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash
Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

The United States does not have a great health care system to help people with substance use disorders (SUD). At every socioeconomic level, treatment is not easy to access. Stereotypes about addicts are outdated and inaccurate. Addiction and alcoholism are usually treated like moral failings or personal choice. The trope of the homeless alcoholic wandering the streets in rags is the story for some people, but it isn’t accurate for most individuals with an SUD.

Federal statutes set forth limited legal protections for people who are suffering from SUD by way of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). People cannot be discriminated against by an employer if they have a history of SUD but are no longer using or if they are currently in a treatment program. If the employee is currently using drugs illegally, they are not protected. Alcoholism is a protected disability but an employer can still hold alcoholics to the same standards as other employees and, as noted by a court ruling, “a termination based on misconduct stemming from a disability, rather than the disability itself, is valid.” The crucial piece of these protections is that employers must give reasonable accommodation for treatment; whether that is seeing the doctor or attending 12 step meetings.

If the law is so limited for protecting employees and if stigma runs so rampant, how does one obtain professional treatment without being fired? The answer might be the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

About half of all Americans over the age of 18 with an SUD hold down full-time jobs. Nine percent of full-time workers have an SUD. Excessive drinking is a leading cause of workplace injuries and lost productivity and dependency is correlated with high job turnover. Addiction rates for the unemployed are upwards of 17 percent, and when unemployment rises there is an increase in substance use disorders.

The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that among the many reasons people don’t seek professional help, 39 percent had no health insurance or didn’t have the funds and 17 percent were afraid they would lose their jobs. Tied up in this is one of the biggest barriers, stigmaSeventy-eight percent of people say they wouldn’t want to work closely with someone with a substance use issue. It is no wonder only 1 out of 10 people who need treatment seek it. These statistics illustrate how important non-discrimination and treatment access are for a healthy workforce.

This is where FMLA comes in (for some people). The FMLA was designed so people don’t lose their jobs for taking a leave of absence to care for a family member’s serious health condition or for obtaining treatment for their own medical needs. Upon return to work, employers must reinstate you in your original job or one that is basically identical to the job you had. It’s unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks. This is additional leave on top of any other leave your employer might give you, like vacation or sick days. When it comes to treatment for a substance use disorder, it would be categorized as a serious health condition.

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Original published 8 August 2017
Summary posted 28 August 2017 
By Kristance Harlow

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