Drug and alcohol addictions have laid waste to many a promising
career and have even resulted in dire ramifications in the form of
violent and sexually inappropriate conduct. But as a protected
disability, the pitfalls of dealing with workplace addictions are
many and employers must exercise caution.
Generally, employers cannot wash their hands of the addicted
employee but must accommodate his or her disability. But there are
limits to their obligations.
Many employers have developed policies that allow addicted
employees to voluntarily disclose and seek treatment for
addictions, without risk of being fired. More often, of
course, the spectre of employee addiction is raised (legitimately
or otherwise) only after the employee has been involved in a
serious workplace incident.
Ian Stewart, a truck operator for Elk Valley Coal in Alberta,
was involved in a serious workplace truck collision and was
terminated after he tested positive for cocaine. Stewart later
admitted to using the drug on his days off.
Elk Valley had a policy whereby employees who voluntarily
disclosed an addiction to drugs or alcohol would not be fired, but
instead would receive assistance in attending rehabilitation.
Employees who did not disclose their problem were not given the
same protection. Stewart never raised his addiction as a disability
before the collision.
The Alberta Court of Queens Bench concluded that he was not
terminated because of his disability, instead it was his disregard
of the employer's policy that got him fired. Indeed, Stewart
had attended a training session on the policy workplace incident
and signed a form indicating he understood it.
In another encouraging recent human rights case in Ontario,
Trevor Huffman was terminated from Mitchell Plastics after
over-indulging in alcohol at the company holiday party. In his
intoxicated state, Huffman had made physical threats and sexually
inappropriate comments to colleagues, management and their
He brought a human rights claim on the basis he suffered from
alcoholism, which was allegedly responsible for his egregious
behaviour. He also said the company knew of his addiction as he had
approached the human resources generalist to inquire about
obtaining Champix, a medication used to treat addictions including
alcoholism, smoking and gambling. The human resources generalist
testified she understood the medication was for smoking cessation
and she did not receive any information, such as a doctor's
note, to indicate the employee was an alcoholic. The Ontario
Human Rights Tribunal found that the employee had not properly
disclosed his addiction, therefore the employer's duty to
accommodate was not triggered.
Where employees do properly disclose their addictions in advance
of such disasters, employers should heed the following advice:
" Take all possible measures to accommodate an addicted
employee before terminating his or her employment. This may include
the provision of rehabilitation treatment depending on the
employer's size and financial means.
" Employers need go no further in accommodating addicted
employees where to do so would cause undue hardship financially or
on other workers.
" Be mindful of your human rights obligations where a
valid drug and alcohol testing policy is in place. You are required
to also have a policy dealing with your duty to accommodate
employees suffering from drug or alcohol addiction.
" Have a policy on the disclosure of drug and alcohol
addiction similar to that of Elk Valley's to avoid
misinterpretation or discrimination claims.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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Unfortunately, reasonable accommodation for employees in the workplace continues to be the source of significant litigation and even today we continue to see outrageous examples of employers behaving badly.
We are now beginning to see reported cases involving charges and subsequent fines laid against employers for failing to provide information, instruction and supervision to protect a worker from workplace violence.
On October 13, 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal an Ontario Court of Appeal decision which ordered an employer to pay a former employee 37 months of salary and benefits following termination.
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