COLUMN: Alcohol dependency and the workplace

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Recently a 24-hour facility for individuals battling addictions opened in Chatham (see feature story by Pam Wright). This is a noble initiative with support from many shareholders including the Ministry of Health, the municipality, the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance Foundation, United Way of Chatham-Kent and CMHA Lambton Kent. In light of this news, it is worth discussing another means of assisting individuals battling addictions: accommodations in the workplace.  

Accommodations in the workplace are important because taking away a person’s livelihood stacks the odds of recovery against them. In circumstances involving an employee with addiction, employers undoubtedly have concerns regarding health and safety in the workplace, but it is important that individual human rights be considered. 

Alcohol addiction & the Human Rights Code

A disability can be psychological or related to mental health (including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In 2000, the judges of the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that alcohol addiction must be accommodated under the Human Rights Code and treated as a disability. Ten years later, they also acknowledged that there is “great social stigma” surrounding alcohol addiction which may cause additional barriers for individuals. 

Stigma surrounding alcohol dependency often emphasizes the individual’s choice as the source of the problem, but the issue is much more complex. Statistics show that individuals can and do recover from alcohol dependency. There are treatment programs and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) which help individuals on their journey. 

Accommodating alcohol addiction in the workplace

A condition may still be considered a disability even if it is temporary or sporadic. Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, an employer has a duty to accommodate a worker’s disability to the point of undue hardship. Employers may be of the opinion that accommodating a worker’s alcohol addiction will cause them hardship because it will be difficult. However, it is important to note that before it can be classified as “undue hardship”, the employer must have made bona fide efforts to accommodate the worker’s disability. 

There are a number of options available to employers who are exploring accommodation options. Accommodation may include modified work, re-training, changing the hours of work, or providing alternative work. Accommodating a worker’s disability may also include unpaid leaves of absence to assist in recovery and progress while ensuring job security. This option is particularly important in accommodating alcohol dependency because recovery may include repeated periods of absenteeism due to relapse. 

Therefore, the duty to accommodate in such circumstances is ongoing and the accommodation process ought to consider the likelihood of one or more relapses before it is considered “undue hardship” for the employer to continue to accommodate.

Judges have interpreted the law in a way that ensures workers with disabilities are given appropriate opportunity to maintain their employment and their livelihood.  For this reason, the courts and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario have decided that if an employer is unable to accommodate the worker in their original role, then it is expected that they will consider an alternative position. 

This is one example where some compromise by the employer is expected. With that said, judges have also acknowledged the additional burden placed on employers due to this expectation, and have therefore expect more from larger employers compared to smaller ones (eg. “mom and pop” shops) that may not have the resources. 

Concluding thoughts 

Human Rights law is constantly evolving in order to reflect medical, social and ideological changes in our society. Despite the recognition by the courts that alcohol dependency is a disability, there are many stigmas surrounding this condition which add barriers to recovery. 

In Ontario, alcohol dependency is a disability which must be accommodated under the law. Workers with alcohol dependency can be productive members of the workforce, but they need to be given the chance to do so.

If you are seeking help with alcohol dependency, AA of Chatham-Kent can be reached by e-mail Ckdistrict15@gmail.com or by phone 519-360-5246. 

 

The content in this article is provided for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice or an opinion of any kind.

  • Ilija Dimeski is an employment and human rights lawyer. Do you have a workplace issue or question about your rights at work? Write to us. Click here to begin.

 

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