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At our law firm, we represent people who have faced illegal discrimination on the job because of their physical or mental disabilities. Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar state laws, disability discrimination occurs when a covered employer fails to hire or promote, or fires a person equally qualified for the job because of the person’s disability. It is also unlawful to take any other negative employment action – such as providing unequal benefits and perks, setting lower pay rates or smaller raises, and others – based on an employee’s disability.

Reasonable accommodations

A unique kind of disability discrimination is the failure to provide “reasonable accommodation” that would allow a qualified employee to perform the job. A reasonable accommodation could be a physical modification to the workplace or to the way the job is done that is not unduly expensive or seriously difficult for the employer to implement. For example, the employer might widen an office doorway to accommodate a wheelchair; computer software could make screen content accessible to someone with a visual impairment; or an alternative or flexible schedule can make medical treatment possible during the workday.

What kind of reasonable accommodations does the law require for an employee with an opioid addiction?

In 2018, almost 90% of deaths from drug overdoses in Maryland involved opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. People fighting to recover from opioid addiction may struggle to stay employed for a variety of reasons, which begs the question: How does drug addiction fit into the rules governing disability discrimination and reasonable accommodation?

On August 5th, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws, issued a guidance document for employees on this topic.

First, illegal drug use is a lawful reason for an employer to fire or discipline an employee, even if the drug use is not negatively impacting job performance. So, in situations where reasonable accommodation may otherwise be available, illegal drug use would allow the employer to refuse to provide it. In some jobs, federal law may require termination for illegal drug use.

But opioid addiction, called opioid use disorder (OID) is a medical diagnosis that may support reasonable accommodation like a variable schedule to attend treatment or therapy, for example. Many opioids are legally prescribed, including methadone to treat OID. According to the EEOC, using legal methadone in a Medication Assisted Treatment program (MAT) cannot be the reason for job termination or failure to hire if the person can safely perform the job duties.

What about side effects from a legal opioid prescription or other disabilities from the addiction?

The agency explains that when someone takes legally prescribed opioids such as for pain for a medical condition and the opioid side effects impact their ability to function on the job, reasonable accommodation may be available. For example, the employer could provide more frequent or longer rest breaks.

Related conditions that may support reasonable accommodation include past opioid addiction that requires current treatment to prevent relapse or other medical diagnoses that can grow from addiction like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If the employer is concerned about whether an employee can still work safely while having an addiction, they may request a medical assessment.

If you have questions about reasonable accommodation for a disability from drug use or addiction, an experienced attorney can explain your options, including potentially filing a disability discrimination charge with the EEOC.