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How Can Companies Deal Legally With Employee Opioid Addiction?

With the opioid crisis running rampant, many companies have employees who are suffering from this addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 8 and 12 percent of those prescribed opioid painkillers will develop an opioid use disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over 350,000 people died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016.

There's a fair chance that someone in your organization is dealing with an opioid painkiller addiction. Before you react, you should be aware that the employee may have rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). A history of drug addiction is considered a covered disability, as may be the underlying condition for which the painkillers were prescribed. Employers cannot discriminate based on disability and must offer reasonable accommodations to employees with covered disabilities.

Don't accuse anyone and be cautious about drug testing

The first thing you should know is that an employee's use of prescription drugs is a private medical matter unless it causes changes in their behavior that threaten workplace safety. Wrongly accusing someone of being addicted could be considered disability discrimination.

Employee drug testing is generally legal as a pre-employment matter. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's position is that existing employees can generally be drug tested only when an employer has a reasonable suspicion that the employee is abusing drugs in a way that will impact their basic job performance or that poses a threat to workplace safety.

If you do initiate a drug test against an employee, you should not take any adverse action if only legally prescribed drugs are found. A good way to avoid problems is to have a medical review officer be the person who evaluates the test. If only legal drugs are found, the medical review officer would report the test results as negative.

What about requiring treatment?

Many companies are choosing not to terminate opioid-addicted employees but instead to help them overcome their addictions. And, workers may be entitled to take short-term disability or medical leave to address their addiction issues. If an employee has admitted to needing help, you should encourage them to use these resources.

You can require the worker to be evaluated by a substance abuse professional and to complete any recommended treatment. However, you should not condition their continued employment on completing any specific treatment or on being informed about treatment progress.

Addiction is a disease, and it can be considered a disabling condition under our antidiscrimination laws. It's crucial to handle employee addictions sensitively and in compliance with those laws. For more information, contact your employment law attorney.

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