After it was reported that USC football coach Steve Sarkisian had shown up intoxicated to a team meeting—and that he allegedly coached a game against ASU under the influence[1] —he was quickly fired.  What many employers need to understand, however, is that alcoholism is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Every employer knows that it can’t discriminate against and must provide reasonable accommodations to a wheelchair-bound employee. Many employers don’t realize, however, that the millions of employees suffering (or recovering) from alcoholism in the U.S. enjoy the same legal protection.

What does this mean for employers? Can an employee suffering from alcoholism ever be terminated? Yes. An employer is permitted to terminate an employee for violating a rational rule of conduct even if the misconduct was related to that employee’s alcoholism. In other words, employees cannot blame misconduct on alcoholism—the ADA distinguishes between alcoholism and alcoholism-related misconduct. The former is protected while the latter is not. For example, the termination of an employee who missed work because she was incarcerated after her third DUI arrest was found to be non-discriminatory.  The court found that she was terminated for her alcoholism-related misconduct, not the fact that she was an alcoholic.

Employers must, however, provide reasonable accommodations to employees suffering (or recovering) from alcoholism. This could generally involve a modified work schedule so the employee can attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or a leave of absence so the employee can seek treatment.

Employers should consult with a knowledgeable employment law attorney to assist them when dealing with employees battling alcoholism.