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Alcohol, the Law, and You

There’s a great deal that you might not know about alcohol and the law. Certain rights apply to those who are battling alcohol or drug addiction. Keep in mind that most of them don’t apply if the person is actively using. Most addicts are protected, however, in the areas of employment and job training opportunities, government programs, housing, education, and healthcare accessibility.

Those in recovery are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, because alcoholism is a medical diagnosis. You also have rights under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. If you’re having housing or workplace issues, you may want to check out the Fair Housing Act as well as the Workforce Investment Act.

The Workplace

An employer cannot refuse to hire you simply because you’ve been in drug rehabilitation as long as your disability does not get in the way of accomplishing your job duties. Employers are not allowed to ask you if you have a disability, and if they know you have a disability they cannot ask you how severe it is.  They are, however, permitted to ask if you drink or do drugs. They can also require you to undergo medical testing that might reveal abuse or dependency issues once you’ve been hired, but they must consistently administer such testing to all new hires.

You cannot be fired for admitting to alcohol use as long as you want to seek treatment. An employer may be required to adjust your work hours so that you can visit your treatment specialist and also attend 12-step meetings.  The employer also has to maintain full confidentiality about your condition. Of course, if your use puts your employer at risk with either clients or product safety, or if your use of alcohol adversely affects your job performance or conduct then they can fire you.

If you need time off from your job to work on recovery, you are guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within any given year under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Keep in mind that FMLA applies to treatment only; you cannot invoke FMLA if you are missing work because of your abuse. To be eligible for any leave under FMLA, you must be an employee of at least 12 months’ duration working at least 1,250 hours, and your workplace must include at least 50 employees working at your site or within 75 miles of your site.

Other Rights

  • If you require job training, you cannot be denied training through government programs or through private sector programs that accept government funds.
  • No mortgage company or landlord can deny you a mortgage or a lease based on the fact of your past drug or alcohol use. You will not however, be eligible for public housing if you’ve been convicted of illegal drug related activity within the past three years.
  • You cannot be denied an occupational certification or licensure based on past alcohol abuse as long as you are not actively using.
  • You may not qualify for food stamps or federal cash assistance programs if you are using. However, if you can prove that you’ve been in rehabilitation, then you should be eligible.  Some states have opted out of or otherwise modified this rule, so you need to check regulations where you live.
  • You may not be able to receive federal student loans or grants if you’ve been convicted of a felony substance abuse charge.
  • Some states ban convicted felons from voting. Whether or not there’s a ban and whether it’s permanent varies widely, so check your state’s laws on this matter.

In order to qualify for protection and benefits under these laws, you must be able to demonstrate via documentation from a medical doctor or an addiction specialist that you are “substantially limited” in some area of “your major life activities.” It’s unwise to divulge your addiction to someone who might be an uncaring bureaucrat. However, should you experience discrimination, it’s important to know your rights that pertain to alcohol and the law.

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