Employers Confront Questions About Substance Abuse and Screening Part II: Alcohol

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The changes in marijuana law have been making headlines in HR industry publications, as employers struggle to adapt to the new era of legalized medical and, in some cases, recreational cannabis. A common comparison is made to alcohol—a legal substance, which employees may choose to use on their own time but which nonetheless can raise major issues in the workplace.

The vast majority of employers enforce a drug-free workplace, especially with regards to safety-sensitive roles. Far fewer would likely take the opportunity, if it were legal, to screen out employees based on recreational alcohol use. Were a glass of wine with dinner to exclude workers from employment, it would be difficult to fill the roster. This is the parallel cannabis advocates are eager to make, arguing that casual marijuana use should be handled in a similar way.

This argument, however, overlooks the challenges employers continue to face with alcohol. Even amidst today’s opioid epidemic and the changing attitudes toward marijuana, alcoholism remains the most common form of substance abuse[1] and contributes to accidents, absenteeism, and productivity losses. Following we take a look at some of the complexities.

Alcoholism is Protected

Alcohol collides with the Americans with Disability Act as alcoholism may be considered a disability. Employers must be cautious about any inquiries into alcohol use, particularly questions such as how much an individual drinks, during the hiring and employment process. Employers may also be required to provide reasonable accommodations if the alcoholism is considered a disability.

Department of Transportation-regulated jobs require drug and alcohol testing, and this law covers various workers in aviation, maritime, pipeline, railroad, and transit jobs, along with commercial drivers. Beyond DOT-required testing, however, employers must be cognizant of the legal sensitivities of drug and alcohol inquiries.[2]

Employers must also understand that some states offer protections to individuals for engaging lawful activity. For example, in Colorado employers may not terminate an employee for engaging in legal conduct outside of working hours (and outside of the employer’s worksite) unless they can demonstrate the conduct relates to a bona fide occupational requirement, or is otherwise necessary to avoid a conflict of interest with the employer’s responsibilities.[3]

Responding to Alcohol Use at Work

Employers are limited in what they can know about alcohol use as part of the hiring process, but companies should still remain vigilant regarding alcohol use on the job. It is recommended that employers set forth a clear policy prohibiting the use of drugs and alcohol on the premises and arriving at work under the influence.

It remains within employers’ purview to drug test employees for cause, such as suspicious behavior or in the wake of a safety incident. Having a drug screening partner available to provide alcohol testing on demand can help HR in responding quickly and effectively to any accident or event. That way, HR representatives have the information and documentation required to handle employment decisions, insurance claims, and liability issues.

Alcohol may not be the topic du jour, but it remains a problem in many workplaces. If you need to refer employees for alcohol testing, or would simply like to ensure you have the capability, talk to Asurint. We understand the compliance issues and the HR considerations and can help link you to the right solution.

[2] Note, this article is provided as an educational overview of some considerations employers should take into account. Asurint does not endorse or sponsor the content provided by this firm and encourages employers to consult with qualified legal counsel.
[3] See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24-34-401.

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