Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Can You Fire an Employee for Being an Alcoholic?

Last week, the University of Southern California fired its head football coach, Steve Sarkasian, for showing up to practice drunk. This was not the first controversy involving Sarkasian and alcohol. A few weeks prior to his firing, Sarkasian showed up to a USC donor event drunk. During the event, he made a rambling, nonsensical speech where he dropped the F-bomb. Eventually, he was pulled off of the stage. 

After Sarkasian’s firing, he checked himself into rehab, and admitted that he had an alcohol problem. Sarkasian said nothing about filing a lawsuit against the school, but if he did, would he have any chance of success? Can an employer fire an employee because the employee is an alcoholic?

Probably not. An employer cannot fire an employee solely because that employee is an alcoholic. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prevents an employer from firing an employee because of that employee’s disability. Alcoholism has been found by some courts to constitute a disability. Therefore, USC probably could not have fired Sarkasian solely because he is an alcoholic. 

However, alcoholics usually are not fired solely because they are alcoholics. Usually their drinking causes them to do something that breaks an employer’s rule, like, for example, showing up to a team event drunk and giving a nonsensical speech in front of players and reporters. Is it legal to fire an alcoholic for breaking the rules while drunk? Almost certainly. Neither the ADA nor any other law protecting employees prevents an employer for firing an employee who breaks the rules while intoxicated. 

Therefore, if an employer must fire an employee with a drinking problem, the employer should make clear that it is firing the employee due to the employee’s misconduct, and not his condition as an alcoholic. The employer should explain to the employee how specific instances of misconduct violated workplace rules and served as the basis for the employee’s firing. 

For example, instead of saying, “Coach Sarkasian, you are being fired because you are an alcoholic,” USC should say, “Coach Sarkasian, you are being fired because you showed up to a team function drunk and made a drunken, nonsensical speech in front of team members and reporters.” This keeps the focus off of the employee’s personal disability and on his conduct. 

Employers in Illinois should be mindful, however, that the Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act prevents them from firing an employee because that employee uses alcohol outside of the workplace. 

Alcoholism is surprisingly common in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 7% of Americans suffer from alcoholism. Therefore, the odds that an employer will deal with an alcoholic employee are relatively high. We suggest that you contact an experienced attorney with questions about how to deal with such employees.