Disabilities and Addictions in the Workplace.

AuthorTuttle, Myrna El Fakhry
PositionSpecial Report: Employment Law

Employee alcohol and drug addictions in the workplace can be very difficult issues for employers to manage. Addiction is recognized as a mental disability, which means that employers cannot automatically terminate employees because of their addiction. On the contrary, employers are required to accommodate those employees to the point of undue hardship.

Section 7 of the Alberta Human Rights Act (AHRA) prohibits employers from discriminating against any person with regard to employment or any term or condition of employment because of a physical or mental disability (among others).

Section 44 (1) of the AHRA defines mental and physical disability as follows:

(h) 'mental disability' means any mental disorder, developmental disorder or learning disorder, regardless of the cause or duration of the disorder,

(I) 'physical disability' means any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness...;

The term "disability" includes an actual or perceived (presumed or believed) disability and they are both protected under the law (Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) v. Montreal (City); Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) v. Boisbriand (City), [2000] 1 SCR 665, 2000 SCC 27 (CanLII).

Since addiction constitutes a disability protected under the AHRA, an employer cannot terminate an employee who has an addiction. The situation must be assessed to determine if there is an addiction or not. If so, then the employer must make efforts to accommodate the employee (See: "CPHR Alberta, Addiction=Disabilitv").

Employees using alcohol or other drugs on the job may have a substance use problem and need treatment. Or they may be occasional users making a very poor decision. It is also possible that a worker with an alcohol or other drug problem never shows up for work obviously impaired, but their workplace performance is still affected. Research has shown that drinking any amount of alcohol immediately before or during the workday (including at lunch or company-sponsored events) is associated with work performance problems (See: "Alberta Health Services: It's Our Business, Addressing Addiction and Mental Health in the Workplace" at p 3-52 [Alberta Health Services]).

Duty to accommodate refers to the employer's legal obligation to take appropriate steps to eliminate discrimination resulting from a rule, practice...

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