While opioid addiction is even more prevalent in the construction industry than amongst the general population, all electrical contractors should consider how to deal with workers who are using opioids for the health and safety of their workers, as well as for the legal protection of their businesses as a whole. A recent lawsuit in North Carolina highlights the care employers must take when handling such cases.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a software company headquartered in North Carolina will be required to pay $80,000 and also provide other relief in order to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by the EEOC against the employer.
According to the EEOC lawsuit, an employee working for the software firm, who had a record of opioid addiction, had been participating in a physician-supervised medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction since 2009.
In February 2017, the employee took a leave of absence from the company and voluntarily admitted himself into an inpatient treatment facility in order to eliminate his need for the MAT.
According to the EEOC, he successfully completed the impatient treatment and returned to work. However, upon his return to work, he was questioned by his employer about the purpose of his leave. The employee disclosed his recent participation in the treatment program and the reason for his participation. In response, his employer fired him "because it perceived him as disabled," according to the EEOC.
Such conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects employees and applicants from discrimination based on their disabilities, including perceived disabilities and records of disabilities.
In addition to the $80,000 in damages, the three-year consent decree settling the lawsuit requires that the employer "revise, implement and distribute personnel policies to state that the company does not exclude employees based on their participation in a medication-assisted treatment program," said the EEOC. In addition, the company must also provide annual training to its human resources team, managers, supervisors, and employees; post a notice to employees relating to the settlement; and report to the EEOC all negative employment actions the company takes against employees who have a record of substance abuse disorder, or who are currently participating in, or have successfully completed, a drug rehabilitation program.
"Employees in recovery and actively participating in treatment should not fear losing their jobs," said Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney of the EEOC's Charlotte District Office. "The EEOC will continue to litigate cases where people with disabilities are terminated based on fears and assumptions about the work they can perform."
As such, electrical contractors should be very careful about making any employment decisions related to workers who are currently in treatment for opioid addiction or are considering seeking such treatment. It is important to ensure HR professionals are up-to-date on regulatory guidelines and requirements, and it may even make sense to check with a labor attorney to determine how to treat an individual case.